The reappearance of fascism on the world scene requires a retheorization of nationalism. If the purpose of theory is that it allows us to see something safely, as Andrea Wilson Nightingale has argued—accompanying and guarding us like an old army general whose view of combat from distant elevated ground reveals patterns no fighting soldier could see—then the return of the past century’s most dangerous phenomenon indicates a theoretical failure at the heart of our strategic planning. Our inherited concept of nationalism has made navigating the lifeworld much more dangerous and difficult than it needs to be. It is either unfinished or poorly made.
We don’t know how to feel about the nation, despite much writing on the topic. Attempts to unravel “the question of the nation” without specifying the materiality that organizes it are futile exercises—as futile as attempts to unravel “the question of the factory” without recognizing production as a material problem in need of perpetual renegotiation. It was the actions of the nineteenth-century workers’ movement within and against the factory-institution that recorded the concept of production as a larger, transhistorical theater of class struggle. From signifying the fabrication of goods, production became a principle of explanation, a way of describing the social-historical world without recourse to ideas of “God,” or “Nature.” Similarly, the nation-state operates within the wider theater of distribution, in which class struggle divides the social surplus into the prices of land, labor, and money. Recognizing contemporary movements within and against the nation therefore requires according this concept of distribution the same weight previously given to production. Like production, distribution is a distinct theater of class struggle, rather than a preamble or a gloss for another more fundamental conflict. In order to understand our current crisis, we need to acknowledge that the class struggle within the theater of distribution is as persistent and as material as it is elsewhere.
Distribution refers to the distribution of the social surplus. To prevent distribution from becoming another night in which all cows are black, it is important to emphasize what distribution is not. In the same way that red is not blue but both red and blue are colors, distribution’s peers clarify what it is. To borrow and refurbish some categories from orthodox political economy, distribution exists alongside production, reproduction, and representation. As a concept defined in relation to other concepts, distribution is what is not-production, not-reproduction, and not-representation. That is: if we consider the sum total of social-historical processes and subtract everything better described by production, reproduction, or representation, what remains is distribution. All four can be understood as theaters, fixed by the class struggle, and charged with staging the differences between the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible, politics and economics. In the same way that transhistorical genres appear in different modes at different times (performance exists always but not always proscenium performance and so proscenium is the mode, while performance is generic), we receive the four theaters of class struggle as always already fixed into this or that contingent mode. Class struggle is what reveals this contingency and records the difference between theaters and modes. If we can say that Taylorism is a mode of production, it is only because we have recognized production as a transhistorical theater of class struggle that has resulted in Taylorism at whatever specific place and time. Insisting on this distinction prevents us from naturalizing such results, even as we argue over how best to characterize whatever mode. Is the shift in the mode of representation best characterized as moving from analog to digital or from paper to pixel? Is patriarchy a mode of reproduction, representation, distribution, or a combination of all three? In each case, what matters is the difference between modes that come and go—patriarchy, Taylorism, the spectacle—and the theaters of their appearance—reproduction, representation, distribution, and production—which, once the class struggle has constituted them conceptually, do not.
For Benedict Anderson, nationalism is a mode of representation: “the nation” refers to the imagined community made possible by the forces of representation unleashed by the technology of the printing press. For Sylvia Walby, nationalism is the public, segregationist subgenre of the patriarchal mode of reproduction wherein women’s exploitation is based on the employer and the state rather than the family (as it was with the private, exclusionary kind). Nationalism is a mode of reproduction in a different sense for Ernest Gellner, who argues that it is necessary for industrial production. Few writers have argued that nationalism is itself a mode of production, but many, like Gellner, have seen it as in some sense derivative, parasitical, or otherwise determined by it.
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