Arjun Appadurai – Fear of Small Numbers

Chapter One: From Ethnocide to Ideocide

Appadurai offers some key points from throughout his book in this chapter.  Here’s a recap of the most notable points:

  1. Genocide: the severe pathologies in the sacred ideologies of nationhood.
  2. High globalization: The possiblities of globalization that are tied up in intertwined doctrines about open markets, free trade, the spread of democratic institutions and liberal constitutions, and the powerful possiblities of the internet to increase freedom, transparency and good governance (2).
  3. Considering the argument of high globalization, A. wonders why there has been such an intensification of violence during the 1990s, or the decade of mass globalization (or at least it’s theorization).
  4. According to A., there is “a fundamental, and dangerous, idea behind the very idea of the modern nation-state, the idea of “national ethnos.”  The national ethnos is created from rhetorics of war and sacrifice, linguistic and educational uniformity, and the subordination of local tradition to a national ethnos.
  5. The idea of the self-sustaining nation-state is dying because of the instability of borders, a lack of general consensus among populations and the notion of a containable and countable population (6).
  6. A. notes that a main thesis is the disruption of this notion of the nation state creates the possibility of violence in the interest of again meeting that possibility.
  7. The anxiety of incompleteness is the basis for the fear of small numbers.  Small ethnic minorities threaten the nationalist majority because they remind the majority that the unsullied and complete national whole doesn’t exist.  To fix this, they must be “assimilated.”
  8. A. considers rage in this book to demonstrate how predatory narcissisms in nationalist populations work themselves out violently to address the slippages in the relationship between minorities and majority.

Chapter Two:  The Civilization of Clashes

Recognizing Huntington’s “war of civilizations” thesis, A. works to complicate this notion a bit here; however, he is laying the foundation for a lot of work to come later in disrupting this idea.  A. notes that the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are – to some degree – diagnostic wars because they strive to define not only who the enemy is (terrorists), but also who the allies are (Coalition of the Willing).  To understand this issue better, A. relies on an articulation of the nation-state as both vertebrate and cellular.

In the vertebrate understanding of the nation-state, countries “thrive on their stories of difference and singularity”; however, there is an assumption of an international order that underpins the nation-state status.  In other words, there is a legitimization of the nation-state via it’s participation in international forums/meetings/etc.  The cellular understanding of the nation-state argues that because affinities between groups might exist across nation-states, the sovereignty of the nation-state itself is secondary to the identification of the individual to a non-national group.  To some degree, the cellular is a post-nation-state assemblage of self-identified individuals (Anderson’s “Imagined Community?”).

What I found most interesting in this chapter is the comparison that A. makes between global capitalism and terrorism.  Despite global capitalism’s vertebral structure in an imagined sense (nation-state economic sovereignty), the cellular nature of global capital to roam across borders in search of free market affinities is very similar to terrorisms own cellularity.  The contradictions – disjunctures in scapes – in circulation tend to create a lot of the tension and set the basis for wars.  Finally, terror is the state of constantly knowing that violence will underpin daily life.

Chapter Three:  Globalization and Violence

According to A. there are three reasons why globalization can’t be reconciled with previous histories (and therefore creates historical rupture): 1) the role of financial capital and it’s transference is far, far faster and more abstract than ever before; 2) national economic sovereignty is unreconcilable with new technological developments that facilitate the transfer of international capital; and 3) crazy magical wealth is generated in the abstract technologized financial sector.  A. focuses in this chapter on violence against minorities.  He claims this happens because of a couple of factors: 1) the empiricization of minorities via census data and other forms of survey.  This creates an empirical count of the “other”; 2) Minorities remind the majority of the failure to collectivize a national unity; 3) minorities end up being the site that nationalisms find an outlet for their own anxieties about global insignificance.  In other words, minorities blur the idea of nationhood because they aren’t the majority; therefore the majority often maps the globalized ephemeral onto their reality in the social imaginary.

Chapter Four:  Fear of Small Numbers

In this chapter A. tries to answer the question, “Why kill, torture, or ghettoize the weak?”  Tracing the argument back to the empiricization of populations into minority/majority through census techniques, A. identifies the development of predatory identities (social identities whose existence requires the extermination of other social groups in order to constitute the “we”), their relationship to nationalist politics in the eradication of difference.  The “anxiety of incompleteness” often operates most virulently when the difference between minority and majority is smallest (think Eastern Europe in the 90s for example).

Despite liberal majoritarianisms being “multicultural” in theorization, the reality is that all majoritarianisms hold the seeds for ethnocide.  Because liberal thought preferences the “1” (utilitarian thought for example), the entire idea of a multitude outside of the number “1” – however small – cultivates anxiety in the liberal majority.  This makes sense for liberal ideology because any large numbers or masses lack the capability of rational through and are dangerous; likewise, any small numbers are dangerous to the liberal project because they 1) tend to be associated with elite oligopolies; 2) they raise the possibility of conspiracy; 3) they insert the private sphere of another polity into the public sphere; and 4) they can represent special interests.  Because of these reasons, the only time that liberal institutions value small numbers are in the reification of democratic procedural politics through dissent (interestingly, a key component of democratic polities).

Chapter Five: Our Terrorists, Our Selves

In this chapter A. attempts to demonstrate how the power of small numbers often leads to the fear of small numbers by the majority.  Starting with the majority viewpoint, A. shows how individuals in the age of terror turn minorities into terrorists because of the lack of knowing.  Because of identity anxiety, ethnocide becomes a viable alternative.  This ethnocide is typically supported by certainty (over majority identification through doctrine) and uncertainty (over the social identity of the minority) by the majority.  A mixture of faraway events (like 9/11) and local realities (long-standing ideological rifts among local populations) creates a geography of anger wherein local sites embody global conflicts and how insecurity of nation-states on global affairs transpose themselves over insecurities in daily life.  This often results in a double-action of state-sponsored action against terrorists and a local reaction against ethnic minorities that contribute to social uncertainty among the majority.  This is particularly the case when local, home-grown terror (like Timothy McVeigh) organizes celluarly in the same manner as international terror.  Operating across all of these events in the slogan “Our Terrorists, Our Selves.”  What A. means by this statement is that the minority created by the linguistic and empirical accounting for populations can begin to identify herself as a member of a larger, injured majority.  In this process, the minority taps into networks of cellular global terror to strike back at their minority status in the liberal democracy.  A. sees this happening worldwide across minority populations – not just in Muslim minorities.

Chapter Six: Grassroots Globalization in the Era of Ideocide

Ideocide is the idea that entire peoples, countries, and cultures are outside the bounds of humanity and are thus legitimate targets for social death.  In other words, these are legitimations of violence toward entire ways of life, not merely genocides or ethnicities or minorities.  The logic of ideocide operates on a two-step reciprocal process that  sees globalizing of internal scapegoats and the localization of faraway enemies – in other words, a vilified minority at home is mapped onto the larger global scale or takes on the characteristics of a moral enemy from far away; conversely, the far away enemies of the world are hated because of manifestations of their civics or ideology in local spaces (lifestyles).  This is a common problem with the U.S.  As a counterpart to the cellular minoritarianism of terrorist groups that A. discusses in the majority of this book, he ends with a discussion of the possiblities of cellular organization of sometimes local and sometimes transnational NGOs working toward social justice.

One Response to “Appadurai – Fear of Small Numbers”

  1. Prabhat

    Was looking for the key ideas of his work. Thanks for the post.

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