Ben Anderson’s Imagined Communities

Benedict Anderson, who died in December 2015, will be remembered as an important historian of South-East Asia and especially for a series of damning papers that undermined the Indonesian New Order (Suharto) Regime’s account of the 1965 coup that brought Suharto to power, in the course of which roughly 500,000 people, some of them suspected communists, were killed. In the broader academic community, he will also be remembered as a scholar who, as a New York Times headline has it, “saw nations as ‘Imagined’.”(December 14, 2015)
Since I have no specialist knowledge of South-East Asia, I am not in a position to say much about Anderson’s work in this area. Yet, having lived through the initial impact of his Imagined Communities (1982, 1991, 2006) in the 1980s I feel qualified at least to reflect on its extra-ordinary impact.
It would not be unfair to suggest that most historians are suspicious of theoretical argument and conceptual analysis, preferring rather to address their differences by marshalling facts, either introducing hitherto unused material to undermine the arguments of their opponents and/or re-interpreting facts that are not themselves in dispute. Anderson was no exception. His Imagined Communities throws out several imaginative ideas – notably the ‘imagined communities’ of his title and ‘print capitalism’ – but it does not work carefully through their conceptual ramifications. It appeared at a time in which Marxism had been largely abandoned in the British social sciences, where it had once been influential in archeology, history, sociology and, to some extent, in economics. In the social sciences more generally, functionalist analysis was under pressure from several standpoints insisting on the importance of subjective meaning in the explanation of action
Imagined Communities argued that ‘with the ebbing of religious belief…the suffering which belief in part composed did not disappear. Disintegration of paradise: nothing makes fatality more arbitrary. Absurdity of salvation: nothing makes another style of continuity more necessary. What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning.’ The great failure of liberalism and Marxism, Anderson suggested, is that they passed over these issues ‘with an impatient silence.’ Nationalism responds to some of the needs that, earlier in Western Christendom, had been met by organised religion. Since they avoided consideration of these needs, liberal and Marxist accounts of nationalism failed to account for its visceral power, the fact that so many have been willing to kill and to die for their nation. In effect, as T. J. Clarke’s glowing review of the 2006 edition points out, Imagined Communities (London Review of Books, September 21, 2006) acknowledges ‘nationalism’s ability to provide answers to the questions that previous religions had made their own. The nation gives form to a shiftless and arbitrary being on earth, it offers a promise of immortality, it is oriented time and again towards – and beyond – the individual’s death.’
While we may question Anderson’s vaguely Nietzschean invocation of the death of God (the ebbing of religious belief), his basic point is undeniable. Not many accounts of nationalism have been particularly interested in its ability to give meaning to the life of its adherents.The question for us is whether this matters. I return to this question below but it is worth noting that, in positing a parallel between Western Christendom and nationalism, Anderson’s discussion of nationalism is no less Eurocentric than the liberal and Marxist accounts that he seeks to displace.

The nation is an imagined community as, in Anderson’s view, any community of more than a few people able to know each other face-to-face must be. It is socially constructed, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as its members. The social construction of the nation was first enabled by print-capitalism, the coming together of capitalism and print technology. Anderson jokingly reduces the argument to a simple formula in a later interview: ‘technology + capitalism + Tower of Babel = nationalism!'(Philippine Studies, 50, 1, 2011 at p.127). While the impact of print-capitalism might be expected to vary according to the legal regulation of what may or may not be published, the practicalities of distribution – a matter not only of waterways, mountains and other natural conditions but also of administrative or geo-political divisions – and how publishing enterprises organise the work of printing, binding and distribution, Anderson nevertheless suggested that print-capitalism promoted two distinct but interconnected developments: first, the standardisation of languages within regions; and second, the publication (of newspapers, books and periodicals) in vernacular, alongside or in place of specialised, elite languages.
“Print language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se.” Not only does a shared vernacular language promote a sense of unity amongst its speakers/readers but its printed forms, newspapers especially, are the site of a unifying ritual. Drawing on Hegel’s observation ‘that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers’, Anderson treats the daily paper as the material basis of a paradoxical national ritual:
‘It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar.’

There are two elements here: the suggestions, first, that reading the paper induces sense of belonging to something larger than oneself and, second that it has a ritual or ceremonial character. Taking them together, reading the paper serves as a ceremonial enactment of the imagined community of the nation. We might pause to ask at this point what reasons, other than Hegel’s authority, might there be for viewing the impact of ‘national’ newspapers in this light? Who reads these papers and what do they get out of them or read them for – sport, politics, scandal, …? What goes on in the readers’ minds? Why, in particular, should we assume that papers are read by most readers in a ceremonial fashion so that each of them gains a sense of belonging to a community of thousands (or millions) of other readers? If print capitalism offers competing papers to choose from, why should we assume that reading one of these papers promotes a sense of unity with readers of the others?

If Anderson moves too easily from the raw idea of print-capitalism to a confident account of its social repurcussions, what can we say about the idea that the national community is imagined? Why, indeed, should we assume that there is more to communities, like the nation, that are invoked for political or religious reasons than the occasions and effects of their rhetorical invocation? At one level, it seems obvious that people who can be persuaded to see themselves as belonging to a particular nation are likely to have some sense of the nation in question. Yet, even if they give it the same name, should we expect that them all to imagine it in the same way? Is it imagined as a community of those who speak the national language or only those for whom it is their native tongue; of anyone born in or formally ‘naturalised’ into the national territory or only of those whose parents are themselves nationals, etc.? If the nation is imagined in diverse ways by those who believe themselves to be its members – if the nations they imagine are substantially different – in what sense can this nation still be said to be imagined by the people who perceive themselves to be its members? More seriously, if the nation is always imagined, how many of its members – and which members in particular – have to imagine it before the nation can be said to exist? We might think, for example, of national movements that, beginning with a few artists and intellectuals, all proclaiming the existence of the nation, may or may not develop into large scale national political and/or military movements. Should we say that in some cases there was a nation just waiting to be born and that in other cases there was not?

How could Imagined Communities have been so successful? Part of the answer is that it offered something, if not to everybody, then at least to large numbers of potential readers. Despite Anderson’s quasi-religious extension of the concept of ‘print-capitalism’, the term itself was enough to offer Marxist readers a sop that could be read as a materialist foundation while the focus on meaning in his critique of liberal and Marxist accounts of nationalism presented anyone fleeing Marxism with an additional nail to hammer into its coffin. This same focus appealed to those critics of social scientific functionalism who insisted that subjective meaning should be central to the analysis of action while the functionalists could find comfort in the thought that subjective meaning never runs wild in Anderson’s analysis but is confined to its place in the little ceremonies that sustain the nation.
Finally, does it matter if Marxist and liberal accounts of nationalism fail to acknowledge its ability to give meaning to the life of its adherents? Almost certainly not. Nationalism is a difficult enough phenomenon to pin down and we should not be surprised if Marxist and liberal accounts have not succeeded. In this area, as in many others, tossing the death of God into the mix is a recipe for further confusion.

politically-motivated men

‘Politically Motivated Men’
Barry Hindess, ANU

In an address to the House of Commons in March 1966 the then British Prime Minister Harold Wilson referred to

the pressures which are put on men I know to be realistic and reasonable, not only in their executive capacity but in the highly organized strike committees in the individual ports by this tightly knit group of politically motivated men who, as the last general election showed, utterly failed to secure acceptance of their views by the British electorate, but who are now determined to exercise back-stage pressures, forcing great hardship on the members of the union and their families, and endangering the security of the industry and the economic welfare of the nation.”1

This passage is particularly interesting for my purposes because it shows a professional politician at the height of his game disparaging motivations he describes as political. Wilson does not tell us much about the content of these motivations or his reasons for dumping on them: it is sufficient for his purposes to condemn them simply as ‘political’. Wilson’s pejorative use of the term ‘political’ should be distinguished from both the familiar lay-persons’ disdain for politics and the populist anti-politics in which individuals and organisations represent themselves as non-political and criticise ‘politics’ and politicians for what dispassionate observers might regard as political reasons (Hindess 1997). In Wilson’s case, it seems that there are respectable forms of politics, notably his own, and others that are not respectable. In the first part of this paper I present a range of examples, several of them from Australia, of people who live off politics – as elected politicians, journalists or commentators – disparaging ‘political’ motivations and ‘politics’ more generally before moving on, in the second part, to consider how we might understand such Janus-faced views of politics.

Wilson also used the phrase ‘politically motivated men’ in other contexts, notably in private Labour Party gatherings where I sometimes heard him describe criticism from the Left of the Party as politically motivated. He was by no means the first British political leader to have disparaged politics. More than a century earlier, in Benjamin Disraeli’s first novel Vivian Grey, published well before he became Prime Minister in 1868, Grey is warned by one of his elders that ‘[t]here is no act of treachery, or meanness, of which a political party is not capable—for in politics there is no honour.’ 2
Accusations of the wrong kind of ‘political’ motivation are not uncommon in Australian politics. We might recall, for example, the tired charges of ‘class warfare’ and ‘the politics of envy’, trotted out whenever Labor raises the issue of tax concessions – a.k.a hand outs – for the wealthy. These charges taunt Labor by portraying it as behaving like the socialist party some of its members may dream of but which it has never dared to become. It suggests that the politics of envy – class warfare on the side of the disadvantaged – unlike its right-wing counterpart – class warfare on the side of big business and the wealthy – represents a dangerous kind of politics that serious politicians should avoid

Following examples of the contemporary disparaging of politics by politicians themselves and by journalists and commentators, who live off mainstream politics, I will suggest that a minor variation on Max Weber’s understanding of politics is all we need to make sense of it.

The full paper can be seen at

political talk

Please scroll down for further posts

What is politics? There have been times when I was confident of the answer: politics was class struggle, a view complicated at different times and in different ways by disputes over the scientific credentials of Marxism (disputes that encouraged among some participants the belief that working on Marxist theory was an important kind of political action); feminism; the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament; anti-racism; the Movement for Colonial Freedom and anti-imperialism. However, my interest in this blog is not in defining the term ‘politics’ or stipulating how it should be used but rather in exploring some of the ways ‘politics’ ‘political’ and related terms are used. ‘Political’ is used sometimes to commend (for example, when Western figures say they prefer a political to a military solution of the conflict in Syria) and sometimes to disparage (for example, when the then Australian Treasurer dismissed Labor and Greens criticism of his two budgets as ‘political’). The exploration of these different usages is one way in which the name of this blog ‘talking politics’ can be interpreted. Max Weber’s discussion of the various forms of social action in Economy and Society is as good a place as any from which to start. ‘Political action’, in his view, simply is the work or activity of governing a political organization, the most important example of which is the state. ‘Politically oriented action’, in contrast,
aims at exerting influence on the government of a political organization; especially at the appropriation, redistribution or allocation of the powers of government. (1978[1922], p.55)
Weber offers a different account of politics in a celebrated essay ‘Politics as a Vocation’ (see ‘Politically-Oriented Men’, posted below) and few people today bother with his distinction. ‘Politics’ and ‘political’ are still used in Weber’s sense to refer to the conduct of states but his ‘politically-oriented action’ is commonly called ‘political’. Electoral competition between individuals or between parties is a clear example, as is much of the work of pressure groups and social movements.

Relations between words and deeds are rarely straightforward. In a series of essays drawing in part on the work of J.L.Austin (many of them now collected in vol 1 of his Visions of Politics) Quentin Skinner advocated a new approach to the history of political thought, arguing that utterances and written texts should not always be read as merely propositional; they could also be performative.

There are cases in which deeds are performed through their affirmation. The conventional British, American or Australian marriage ceremony is the classic example. Imagine that Jennifer Smith and Stephen Jones after living together for some years ‘in sin’, as some of their relatives say, decide to step away from this particular sin by getting married. They organise a state and/or church-approved ceremony in the course of which a person authorised to do so asserts ‘I now declare you man and wife’ (or other authorised form of words to the same effect). Instantaneously, where previously there had been just two people, there is now one married couple and, unless she decides to hold on to her father’s family name, Jennifer Smith magically becomes Jennifer Jones. Of course, Stephen might choose to spare her the trouble by changing his name instead, say, to Stephen Smith, but he could not do so as part of the same ceremony.

The point of this example is that, in the case of marriage, the words are the deed: the pair are married if and only if an authorised person, in the course of a state/church-sanctioned ceremony, asserts that they are married. Legislation under consideration by the Australian parliament at the time of writing (early December 2015) seems likely to authorise a Minister to strip their citizenship from Australians who are also citizens of another state, if they are convicted (or even suspected) of committing a terrorism offence. In this case, too, the words would perform the deed unless the courts get in the way. Yet, it seems clear that the word perform the deed only if the Minister’s decision was enforceable by a complex set of institutional arrangements, including an immigration control system, police and compliant courts. A similar point, obscured by my use of the word ‘authorised’, applies to the marriage example except that the necessary institutional arrangements will be rather different. While, at first sight, it seems that the words perform the deed, they do so only within suitable institutional arrangements.

In most other cases, relations between words and deeds are more complex. Undocumented immigrants do not suddenly become law-breakers when, as often happens in Australia and the USA, some authorised person, declares him /her to be ‘illegal’. And we clearly need to consider the converse relationship between words and deeds, cases in which deeds take the place of words, cases in which, for example, police, a criminal gang, IS or the US military employ violent means to ‘send a message’ to their opponents

In the case of politics, which is my concern here, talking (and writing) are integral to its existence. At one level (Weber’s political action), Governments of independent states interact with their own populations (and with individuals and public or private organisations within them) in part by issuing instructions such as ‘No Dogs, Bikes or Skateboards’, ‘No Entry’, ‘No parking’ or ‘No right turn’. Governments issue instructions on how to apply for a driver’s licence, a passport, visa or identity card, a sickness, unemployment or other benefit, along with appropriate forms for the applicant to complete. Governments interact with the Governments of other states through diplomacy, declaring War or threatening them by asserting sovereignty over hitherto unclaimed areas of land or sea. Within their own jurisdiction, they declare States of Emergency, Public Holidays, periods of national mourning or what they describe as new policies. At another level (Weber’s politically-oriented action), active involvement in politics whether through membership of political parties or social movements, involves participating in, and even organising, meetings, having to listen to others talk and sometimes having one’s own say. Electoral competition between individuals and between parties invariably requires lots of talk.

Words are essential components of political life. Thus, ‘talking politics’ may refer either to the talking (or writing) that goes on within politics or to talking, or writing, about it. Regarding the former, while the words used are often important, we should be careful not to judge political actions by the words employed in their performance. Treaties described by Government agencies as promoting ‘free trade’ or, as Australian Government advertisements called them in late 2015, ‘Free Trade Export Agreements’, particularly those involving the USA, are often concerned less with freeing trade in general, than with enacting complex forms of protectionism, aiming to protect the ‘intellectual property’ of large chemical, IT and other businesses in return for concessions in other areas.

Why there is so little serious examination of political talk in Australia and other anglo ‘democracies’ remains an open question at this stage. My guess is that the answer has a lot to do with the widespread application of the view that thinking can be presented as entertainment – call it cogitainment – as it is, for example, in popular science broadcasts, Q&A, TED talks, the Sydney Festival of (all-too-familiar) Dangerous Ideas – ideas that are dangerous only in the sense that raptors in the film ‘Jurassic Park’ are dangerous (most members of us know that they are not likely to climb down from the screen and bite) and Writers Festivals all over the place

I noted earlier that talking about politics can be a way of doing politics or, making a slightly different point concerning the spoken word, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. The Coalition’s accusation ‘A Big New Tax’ that arose whenever someone in Government or even advising it raised the possibility of pricing as a mechanism for reducing carbon emissions was more than just a misleading description: it was also a powerful attack on the (Labor) Government in power.

The line ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ is to be spoken by Cardinal Richelieu in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1839 play Richelieu; or The Conspiracy. It is easily read as celebrating the power of the written word and thus of the writer. Yet, even if this reading is what Bulwer-Lytton had in mind when he penned this line, it does not properly reflect Richelieu’s situation as depicted in the play. Richelieu’s words, written or spoken, were mightier than his sword only because numerous state functionaries, some of them weilding swords, were ready to act on his command. The pen is mightier than the sword only if it is wielded by an authorised person, like Richelieu himself. Few French people in Richelieu’s day or since could wield their pens to such effect.

Yet, if ‘talking about’ is sometimes a way of ‘doing’ politics it is not always effective in the manner that some of its practitioners might wish. Intellectuals may be tempted to combat racism, for example, by arguing that there is no foundation for the view that there are biologically distinct human races, each with their own distinctive levels of intelligence, industriousness, deviousness or whatever. While criticising what used to be called ‘scientific racism’ in this way may steer undergraduates and some journalists away from supporting racist arguments, its impact in other contexts is likely to be limited. Indeed, if racial difference is not a biological given but rather a social construct, we should not expect it to be particularly vulnerable to rational critique.

There are times when the usage of words in political talk is worth treating seriously. My first two posts, from November and December 2015 – both written before this ‘introductory’ one – are responses to wild talk by Australian politicians, security specialists and media commentators about something called ‘radicalisation’. ‘Against radicalisation’ is an angry rant about the concept of ‘radicalisation’, which is a seriously bad and dangerous idea. I should add that my objection is not to the idea that people may sometimes become more radical, which seems pretty obvious, but rather to the current usage of the term specifically to target muslims. I offered this piece to several Australian media outlets, both print and on-line, all of whom, with the notable exception of the AIM Network, rejected it – as indeed I should have expected. The Folk Devils paper takes up two influential concepts, ‘Folk Devils’ and ‘Moral Panics’, from 1970s academic criminology to argue that, in spite of real limitations, these concepts can help us to understand the current ‘radicalisation’ scare. A third post, ‘Politically-Motivated Men’, due to appear in December 2015, examines what else might be going on when professional politicians and commentators use ‘political’ as a pejorative term in order to dismiss political views or actions other than their own. A good example is Joe Hockey’s responses to Labor and Green criticism of his two budgets which he could only disparage as ‘political’. Other posts will be aded from time to time. In some cases, rather than an excessively long post, i have posted only the title and opening paragraphs of a longer paper. in such cases the papers themselves can be found at

Against Radicalisation

Barry Hindess


‘Radicalisation’ is too often presented as something that happens to young Muslims, often turning them into potentially violent extremists. Rather, it should be seen as an ugly figment of the security imagination . Accordingly, my title reflects an objection to the term ‘radicalisation’ and the ideas it represents.

It might seem that ‘radicalisation’ could happen to any of us, that whatever views we presently hold – green, liberal, socialist or conservative, Protestant, Catholic, Muslim or atheist – could become more ‘radical’ or ‘extreme’. Yet, when these terms are used without qualification they almost invariably target Islam. Malcolm Turnbull’s inclusive response to the recent Parramatta shooting shares this problem with his predecessor Tony Abbott’s more confrontational stance. In a recent interview with ABC Radio National Turnbull insisted on the ‘need to counter radicalisation’, going on to say that ‘We have to work with the Muslim community in particular very collaboratively, …. They are our absolutely necessary partners in combating this type of extremist violence.’ Radicalisation and extremist violence are viewed as issues that arise within the Muslim community, which is why they are ‘our absolutely necessary partners in combating’ them.

However, there are familiar varieties of extremism and of radicalism that are in no sense Islamic. Those of us who watched the recent Bendigo Mosque protests, whether in the flesh or through the security of our television screens, will have observed a truly frightening level of hatred and aggression on the part of some of the protestors. We have yet to see our leaders take a stand against the radicalisation of such people. There are Bhuddist extremists in Myanmar who terrorise the Rohingya Muslim minority and militant evangelical Christian extremists in parts of Africa and North and South America but they are not often seen as posing a threat to the Western way of life. There are small groups of these Christian extremists in Australia but, whatever they may do to each other, they generally leave the rest of us in peace.

Leaving religion to one side, we often see radicalism and extremism in political life. At one time, political radicalism was expected of young people – at least, among those of a certain class, a class that allowed its members the luxury of experimenting with political allegiances. The French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau is reputed to have said ‘ My son is 22 years old. If he had not become a Communist at 22, I would have disowned him. If he is still a Communist at 30, I will do it then’. Clemenceau’s comments suggest both an awareness that radicalisation might happen among the young and what now seems a remarkably optimistic response: give it time and it will likely pass.

More immediate examples of political extremism are neo-liberalism and the anti-refugee practices promoted by our two major political parties. The former is a doctrine that promotes radical economic change throughout the world – the privatisation of public assets and deregulation and marketisation of anything that moves. Margaret Thatcher did not come into the world as a neo- liberal extremist but, grew into it in her years as a politician. In other words, she was radicalised. Similarly for the IPA ‘s benighted publicists. Neo-liberal extremism poses a real threat to most people in the West, and also to the rest of the world. It is alive and kicking in the Coalition and still has disturbing levels of support within the Labor Party.

Australia’s refugee regime is a threat to the well-being of anyone in its clutches. It is a clear case of irreligious Western extremism, suggesting that both those who run the regime’s camps and those who established them must have been radicalised , if only by the thought that being tough on refugees was a prerequisite of career advancement and/or political success. It is tempting to say something similar about Western military intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria

Another problem is that the term is poorly defined. Both here and in North America where it seems to have originated, it is little more than a reflection of the political concerns of those who use it. It refers to a process identified by its alleged results. Leaving aside the well publicised actions of Western powers in the Middle East, whatever else results in radicalism among Muslims is denounced as radicalisation. As often happens with public policy fads, far too many academics have identified themselves as ‘radicalisation’ specialists, thereby overlooking their responsibility to promote intellectual rigour in public life.

I do not deny that talk of radicalisation gestures towards a real problem or problems, but we should examine these problems more carefully before seeking actively to address them. We know that young people and more than a few of their elders, finding themselves alienated from the societies in which they live, sometimes seek support elsewhere and it is hardly surprising that this happens within the Muslim community. The reasons for this alienation and responses to it may be many and various, sometimes including ill-informed talk of ‘radicalism’, ‘extremism’ or ‘fundamentalism’ and the intemperate actions of our governments. The politically-charged notion of radicalisation does nothing for our understanding of these issues.