Transnationalist Nationalism: Globalization and Late Bourgeois Notions of "Freedom"

Amrohini Sahay


Left Populisms

Reading and its Cultural Politics
Robert Faivre

The Daydreams of iPod Capitalism
Rob Wilkie

Freedom and Human Rights under Imperialist Hegemony
E. San Juan, Jr.

How to Stop Paying Lip-Service to Class—And Why it Won't Happen
Julian Markels

Spiritualizing Race: Sketches on the Values Politics of Cornel West
Mas'ud Zavarzadeh



Since its inception in the 80s, the dominant postcolonial cultural theory (informed by the post--as in poststructuralism and postmarxism) has coalesced largely as a class apparatus for producing the concepts of an emergent "postnational" culture—hybridity, migrancy, new cosmopolitanism, travel, global/local, and so forth, all of which have been deployed to represent the hegemony of capitalist globalization as the end of class and the arrival of a new era of democracy-without-borders. In this context, Negri and Hardt's widely celebrated argument for globalization as the arrival of "postimperialist" "Empire" (2000; xii) should perhaps be seen as only the most forceful articulation of the underlying assumptions of this ruling class cosmopolitanism. Still, under the pressures of the intense material conflicts actually entailed by capitalist globalization—and especially after 9/11—this version of cosmopolitan cultural theory is losing its political efficacy.[1]For example, how, after the "preemptive" and "unilateralist" colonial invasion of Iraq (a sovereign nation) by the US (also a sovereign nation) can the thesis of a politically de-centred "Empire" in which the nation-state is dead and the struggle against imperialism is over be seen as anything other than an opportunist political apologetics for an unbridled US imperialism with no purchase on the class realities of contemporary globalization? (See, for example, Bashir Abu-Manneh's sustained critique in his "The Illusions of Empire")[2]. But here lies the contemporary problem for poststructuralist postcolonialism: insofar as it gains its political credibility as a means of advancing the struggle for "freedom" for the masses of the South, it needs to provide a theory which can be seen as offering a means to oppose transnational capitalism and an alternative vision of the future than that inscribed in a utopian cosmopolitanism which alibis imperialism. On the other hand, however, given its class roots it cannot recognize socialism—as international class praxis to overthrow capitalist imperialism and its state—as such an alternative. It is in the face of this double imperative that bourgeois postcolonialism is now having to revive the nation as a "ground" for political struggle in globality. Pheng Cheah's recent Spectral Nationality[3] is located as part of this revival in its claim to offer a new deconstructive and post-essentialist theorization of the nation for globalization—a theorization which claims to reevaluate and reaffirm the role of popular nationalism in the struggle for "freedom" and thus to offer a solution to the political crisis of cosmopolitan postcolonialism.

The explicit problem with which Spectral Nationality is concerned is, therefore, the problem of how to theoretically and politically rehabilitate the nation as an agency of freedom for the impoverished masses of the Third World in the face of both its dismissal by bourgeois cosmopolitanism as inherently politically/culturally oppressive, irrationalist and an essentialist legacy of colonialism, as well as from its socialist critique as the classical form of the modern bourgeois political state needed for the economic development of emerging capitalism and its national markets. Unsurprisingly, Cheah's deconstructive (speculative) strategy is to rewrite the problematic of the nation as primarily a philosophical one. For Cheah, all existing "sociological" and "historicist" theories of the nation (inclusive of the writings of Benedict Anderson through to subaltern studies and classical Marxism) miss the philosophical roots of the nation and nationalism and thus ultimately end up "pathologizing" it (8). Similarly, contemporary arguments which oppose "cosmopolitan universalism" to "nationalist particularism" fail to recognize their common philosophical basis, a shared set of assumptions which informs their discussions of the political such that they misrecognize the failures of postcolonial nationalism to enable the realization of freedom. In order to reclaim the ideal of the nation as a route to freedom, Cheah argues, it is necessary to uncover its philosophical roots in what he terms an ontology of "organismic vitalism" inaugurated by German Idealism.

What then, according to Cheah, is organismic vitalism?  As Cheah argues, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed the emergence of an "organismic metaphor of the social and political body" whereby the social and political are modeled on the concept of "organism", as for example, the idea of the nation as an "organic community" found in Romantic thought. For Cheah, however, the conventional conflation of the organismic metaphor with Romantic irrationalism is misleading (it narrows down the operational range of the concept). As he states, "[o]rganismic conceptions of collectivity do not necessarily repudiate normative reason" (25).  By expanding its range, Cheah is then able to argue that the "organismic metaphor" by means of which society and the political body are seen as an organism ("a non-artificial life form" 26) is in fact the paradigm of all "modern" theories of the social and the political (from Kant's cosmpolitanism, to Fichte's nationalism, to Hegel's statism, Marx's internationalism and beyond), a paradigm which corresponds to a break from earlier "mechanistic" models (which he associates with absolutism) and coincides with the onset of capitalist modernity.

As Cheah elaborates his claim, the basic philosophical framework of the organismic metaphor is established by Kant as a response to the question of how "freedom [can] be realized in the world of experience" (19) or how "rational ideals can be made real" (36), in the intellectual context of a wider "braiding together of three fundamental philosophemes…: a transcendental idea of freedom, the concept of culture, and the idea of organism" (34). As he writes, in Kant, as in German idealism more generally, "[i]nsofar as freedom must be regarded as an ideal that is capable of being realized, the distinction between the ideal and the real can and must be crossed" (36). Here, Cheah argues, the philosopheme of "culture" (Bildung) analogically hybridized with a vitalist theory of "organism" functions as a bridge between the two. Culture qua purposive and teleological rational activity modeled on then current biological theories of the vital organism is posited as the means to bridge the gap between the ideal and the real, the means by which ideals can be incarnated in the real and freedom actualized. Moreover, because the "vital organism is a phenomenal figure for the auto-causality of freedom, [all political forms that rely on the organismic metaphor] have as their common substrate a dynamic that subordinates death and artifice to organic life" (59). The organismic metaphor as the paradigm of freedom thus presupposes the overcoming of "finitude", death, and all "external" limitations in the achievement of freedom.

And yet, for Cheah, this is exactly the limitation of the organismic metaphor: its positing of culture as freedom actualized through the incarnation of political ideals in reality is based on excluding the (external) "outside" to culture—its constitutive (and determining) aporia. I will return to Cheah's notion of the "outside" of culture shortly. What is necessary to note here on the one hand is that Cheah's "problem" with what he calls the organismic metaphor is emphatically not its idealist culturalism: its conflation of the cultural with the social as such. Indeed, Cheah, in line with contemporary culturalism's  war against (Marxist) materialism, is at pains to establish that any relegation of culture as "secondary" (45) is itself founded on a fundamental misrecognition: for Cheah, as for contemporary culturalism, culture "supplies the ontological paradigm for the political" (45). On the other hand however, and here is where Cheah's difference from both Marxist and established postmarxist "radical democratic" accounts (Butler, Laclau, Derrida, …) lies, Cheah not only accepts the idealist definition of culture as "the normative process by which humanity transforms itself and its external reality through the prescription of purposive forms, and the realm where human interaction is ordered according to laws and norms prescribed by collective reason" (45) but in fact identifies such prescriptive (transcendental) cultural norms as essential to the project of freedom. Thus, contrary to the conventional logic of poststructuralism which rejects every norm as a ""totalitarian" fiction imposed upon the "play" of the entire discursive field, here Cheah is arguing that it is necessary to see the cultural norm as an essential condition for progressive politics as the realization of freedom. In other words, here Cheah is defining a political logic which enables him to locate the nation as constitutively (and not historically) a progressive political ideal.

What then of the organismic metaphor's exclusion of what remains "outside" culture? Here, Cheah falls back on a Derridean reading of the "outside". As he elaborates, freedom (viewed as the incarnation of ideals) is dependent on what he terms "teleological time"—the time necessary to actualize the ideal—but, as he also states, following Derrida's reading of time in Specters of Marx and elsewhere, the "gift" of time exceeds the human--as such it stands constituted as the unacknowledged precondition for the realization of all human (rational) ideals which fractures the (subjective) intentionality embedded in "teleological time". "Teleological time" (upon which the realization of human freedom depends) is thus both made possible and impossible by this "gift" of the absolutely (inhuman) other which must be thought beyond any opposition of nature and culture (381-395). Freedom is thus constitutively unrealizable—not because of a failure which could be attributed to any rational or historical cause which could be superceded, but because such failure is built in as a form of spectral alienation (384-388) which causes every ideal to fail. Here again it is necessary to note how Cheah is rewriting the radical democratic theory popularized in the late 80s and 90s so as to accommodate his wider argument. For Cheah, then (echoing the postmarxist writings of social constructionism and performativity theory), what is needed to counteract a politics of realizable emancipation (which he too rejects as "modernist" and hence "outdated") is a theory of the political as constitutively aporetic and unrealizable. But—and this is where he differs from culturalist postmarxism which theorizes the "outside" as itself a product of the internal workings of culture/discourse and, therefore, according to Cheah is "too timid to touch the substance and matter of the real" (201)—this "unrealizability" must ultimately be referred back to what remains "absolutely other": "an alterity that makes any and all presence possible, but is not, itself, of the form of presence. It is the trace of the inhuman and unnatural spectral other within presence" (387). Here, in arguing that he is articulating a notion of the "outside" to culture which touches the "substance and matter of the real", Cheah of course is gesturing toward materialism as a critique of idealism, including the idealism of the Butler/Laclauist "constitutive outside" considered as ultimately an effect of discourse (culture). But in the process of doing so he is of course simultaneously erasing the material outside as a knowable and historical objectivity (as it is for historical materialism) and rewriting it in a secularized (de-transcendentalized) language of a negative theology: an unknowable and unchangable spectral "other" beyond the natural or the cultural which nevertheless "determines" them. He is, in short, (following Derrida) substituting for a historical and material "outside" to culture what may be termed a "spiritual" materialism (written through a tropics of negativity which nevertheless does not evade the theological), and for a materialist (scientific) ontology of objective reality a "hauntology" based on the mysticism of an "inhuman other" beyond any reliable knowledge.

How, on this basis, does Cheah propose to reunderstand the fate of the postcolonial nation and its state?  Here Cheah brings together his reading of the organismic metaphor (through which, as we have seen, he establishes the nation-as-rational-ideal as a progressive basis for political struggle), and his Derridean reading of a supplementary spectral "outside" to explain, as he claims, the empirical developments of the postcolonial nation and the failures of revolutionary nationalism to liberate the people. As the given content of the political in globality (since socialism, he predictably claims, is dead), the nation-form and popular postcolonial nationalism persist as vehicles for the realization of freedom. And yet, this very teleological project of the realization of freedom which defines it is, at the same time, perpetually subject to constitutive alienation by a radical alterity "that cannot be anticipated" (390), an alterity which is permanently inscribed in a "future-to-come": "something that is always arriving but which never arrives finally" (390). Here of course Cheah is twisting Derrida's inscription of the "future-to-come"  away from Derrida's own cosmopolitan frame. Thus as he himself notes, while Derrida speaks of the "future" (pre-figured by the "logic" of spectrality) as contentless and indeterminable, nevertheless in an exemplary ideological gesture of cosmopolitanism he "dresses spectrality up as the scene of migrancy and transnationalism" (391) while referring nationalism to "an outmoded doctrine of self-present place" (392). For Cheah, on the contrary, it is necessary to understand the logic of spectrality not as a harbinger of (future) freedom, but as the reason why alienation is always already inscribed in freedom. It is then on these terms that he offers "spectral nationality" as a new metaphor for thinking postcoloniality in terms of "a mutual haunting of nation and state" (384): while the nation (and popular cultural nationalism) persists as the project of freedom, it also bears within it the state as the trace of alienation and unfreedom. Postcolonial national culture is, has been and will remain "haunted" by its "other"—the colonial and neocolonial state—which is alienated from it and functions as a vehicle of capitalist exploitation and oppression. But this mutual haunting of popular nationalism and the capitalist state should be seen as itself an effect of a more fundamental (spectral) alienation and should be understood in terms of "an interminable experience of the aporia of life-death, where death is irreducibly inscribed within the living present" (391).  As he concludes, "In a postsocialist age, we can only hold on to the impossible necessity of transcending global capitalism by referring the postcolonial nation's continuing alienation back to a more radical contamination. This is not a matter of rejecting national Bildung, but of interminably accounting for its limits" (390).

Cheah's metaphor of "spectral nationality" traces a deconstructive route back to postcolonial cultural nationalism via what I have called a "spiritual materialism". But how materialist is this materiality of the spectral?  Does it in fact provide an effective and transformative understanding of the reality of globalization which can enable its transformation? Or, like all idealisms is its goal to render it finally static and unchangeable?  Here Cheah's reading of Marx is most significant. As Cheah argues, his concept of the "organismic metaphor" as putting forth a model of the social which erases the "outside" to culture should be read, contrary to the view of Marx as positing a determining outside to culture, as inclusive of Marx.  Here in order to slot Marx into his model of organismic vitalism, and erase his theorization of the cultural superstructure as determined by the economic base--the "inside" by the "outside", Cheah predictably reads Marx as repeating Hegel in a materialist idiom. Thus, according to Cheah, Marx's concept of labor should ultimately be viewed as a form of deterritorialized Hegelian Bildung and his theory of revolutionary proletarian collective appropriation of the means and forces of production as the route to "freedom" should be understood as a radicalization of Hegel's notion of the reappropriation of "external reality" by the movement of the Idea. For Cheah, the proletarian revolution in Marx should therefore be seen as an exemplary cultural process of "[g]enuine organicization" "which transforms the world into a rationally organized totality of human producers" (200). As he continues, "[Marxist appropriation] involves the rational control and mastery of the forces and means of production in their entirety through the incarnation of rational consciousness as the whole material world" (200). "Proletarian appropriation is structurally identical to the organic process of Bildung, which Hegel elevated into the paradigm of spiritual activity" (199). In short, for Cheah, Marx's theory of proletarian revolution--seen as a process of the actualization of "reason"-- involves the dissolution of any (non-subsumable) "outside" to the (cultural) organism in order to overcome alienation.

Yet, while Cheah's reading of Marx as Hegel redux will no doubt be reassuringly welcome to an intellectual establishment trained in mystifications of Marxism, in fact Cheah utterly misrepresents Marx's views. This misrepresentation, moreover, is not simply a "misreading" but an ideological act by means of which Cheah violently excludes Marx's materialist outside. (I leave aside here that Cheah's reading of the organismic metaphor is based on a false analogy between an organicist vitalism now being revived in some versions of complexity theory and the concept of organic structure as a thinking of the functional unity of a totality constituted by its structure of relations.)  At the crux of Cheah's argument, is in fact the very conflation of objectification (Vergegenstandlichung) with alienation (Entfremdung) that Marx critiqued in Hegel and radically distinguished in his own writings (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 383—400). While Cheah is "aware" of Marx's critique he nevertheless erases this crucial distinction in Marx's theorization of proletarian revolution. Thus contra Cheah, for Marx the "two key moments of the organic labor process--externalization or objectification and appropriation [of nature]" are not subsequently "magnified into labor's alienation and revolution against capitalism" (Cheah 195), such that the overcoming of alienation signals the overcoming of the objectification of labor and of objectivity or the world independent of consciousness generally. Indeed, as even a cursory reading of Marx's texts—from his early to his later work—shows, for Marx objectivity independent of consciousness/culture--both the objectivity of labor externalized in its social products and relations, and the fundamental externality of nature to the social is constitutive. The praxical overcoming of alienation as Marx theorizes it is, in short, a specific negation of capitalist labor relations (in which the product is alienated from the producer) and not a Hegelian "transcendence" of objective reality. And, indeed, it is just this specific negation of capitalism and its social relations that Cheah works to prevent by transcoding it as a form of modernist transcendentalism.

Cheah's articulation of "spectral nationality" as a metaphor for struggle under globalization is, in the end, little more than another "new" permutation of the speculative idealism of the "post" theories in an attempt to address their internal contradictions and inability to effectively address the realities of capitalism: thus his revision of the discourse of spectrality from the upbeat discourses of a cosmopolitanism-to-come to a more purportedly "realist" emphasis on a constitutive alienation which limits "freedom" but requires an ethical defense of cultural nationalism as a resistance to global capital.[4]  These internal ideological shifts in thinking the nation in relation to freedom, however, need to be referred back to their objective class conditions in the development of capitalism. Postcolonial cosmopolitanism, in its opposition to the nation-state, needs to be understood not idealistically--as underwritten by the vicissitudes of a traveling metaphor-- but materially: as the cultural legitimation of the situation of advanced monopoly capital for which the nation has become an obstacle to its "free" development (just as, at an earlier stage, it was the means to realize it). Contemporary imperialism, in other words, requires unfettered access not just to the labor force of individual nation-states, but to the global labor force. "Freedom" here is, like all bourgeois notions of freedom, an allegory for the unfettered freedom of capital to move without regard to established boundaries. It is freedom not for the global proletariat but for the ruling class. "Spectral nationality", is, in its turn, a recognition of this fact: that the processes of globalization bring freedom only to the few and crushing poverty and insecurity to the many and that the nation-state remains the only barrier between global capital and nationally divided populations. It remains, however, a class articulation of freedom. Cheah's rewriting of nationalism as "spectral" is not only an argument marking the persistence of nationalism in a ghostly form (without identity), but is a move to simultaneously naturalize the predations of transnational capital (mediated through the postcolonial state) as a constitutive limit to the "freedom" promised by the classical discourses of nationalism. It is, in other words, a concept designed to crisis manage the contradictions of global capital while maintaining its inevitability and belongs to what Lenin called the "petit-bourgeois-democratic opposition to imperialism" (Imperialism 249).

Beyond speculative postcolonial "theory" however, the view is very different. The crisis of the "organismic metaphor" that Cheah elaborates is not a crisis of freedom, and still less a crisis of socialist internationalism. To paraphrase Marx's critique of the speculative idealism of his time, people win freedom for themselves each time not by "realizing" a concept (whether "nation" or…) but "to the extent that [is] dictated and permitted not by their ideal…but by the existing productive forces" (German Ideology 456-457). Today, the "crisis" of globalization remains the crisis of imperialism as Lenin theorized it: the development of the productive forces of capitalism beyond the limits of  capitalist relations and its institutions including the nation-state (Imperialism). Capitalist militarism, the dismantling of the "democratic" (welfare) state, the crisis of national sovereignty,… all are symptoms of the material limit which capitalist relations of production now pose to the further development of the productive forces built by labor. But a material limit needs to be dealt with materially: it requires objective transformation. It is in this sense that globalization and its attendant crises should be understood neither as the occasion for an economic fatalism (Cheah), nor as the grounds for political voluntarism (as in Zizek's speculative reading of Lenin) [5], but as the basis for building a material force capable of using the state as a means to transform its dying relations. The task of postcolonial cultural theory—if it is to go beyond an ever more spiritual and spiritualizing bourgeois apologetics for a ruthless and brutal imperialism and become an effective agency toward social transformation—should be to abandon its class evasions and its "innocent dreams of a comparatively peaceful, comparatively conflictless, comparatively non-catastrophic" future (Lenin, "Introduction" 12) and, instead, side with the international proletariat and fight for a revolutionary future free from exploitation

Works Cited 

Cheah, Pheng.  Spectral Nationality: Passages of Freedom from Kant to Postcolonial Literatures of Liberation.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2003.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Lenin, V.I. Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In V.I. Lenin: Selected Works. New York: International Publishers, 1971.

____"Introduction", in N. Bukharin, Imperialism and the World Economy. New York:Monthly Review Press, 1974.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. In Karl Marx: Early Writings. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.

____. and Frederick Engels. The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1976.


[1] An index of the historical pressures on the cosmopolitan imaginary is given in Bruce Robbins' recent essay "What's Left of Cosmopolitanism?" (in Radical Philosophy 116, November/December 2002. 30-37). Here Robbins is at pains to deflect the critique of postcolonial cosmopolitanism as the cultural legitimation of US imperialism by attempting to distinguish "left cosmopolitanism" from its "liberal" counterpart by stressing the (newly discovered) importance to the former of economic inequality in the struggle for social justice. This saving gesture is nevertheless quite predictably undercut by his simultaneous defense of transnationalism's global commodity culture as a site of resistance to capitalism (37) which is one of the hallmarks of the "left" defense of corporate globality.

[2] Bashir Abu-Manneh, "The Illusions of Empire" in Interventions. 2003. Vol. 5 (2). 159-276.

[3] Earlier versions of the arguments of the book are to be found in Cheah's contributions to the volume Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation (University of Minnesota Press, 1998) co-edited with Bruce Robbins, as well as several journal essays.

[4] On cultural nationalism as the means to resist capitalism in a  "sociological" register, see Gordon Laxer's "Radical Transformative Nationalisms Confront the US Empire". Current Sociology, March 2003, Vol. 51(2). 133-152.

[5] See his "Afterword" to Revolution at the Gates. London and New York: Verso, 2002.

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