Collective Identity in Post-ideological Societies. Nationalization of the Classes

15 marzo 2019


Collective Identity in Post-ideological Societies. Nationalization of the Classes

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Contribution selected by Filodiritto among those published in the Proceedings “5th ACADEMOS Conference 2018”

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Andrei ȚĂRANU[1], Adela Mihaela ȚĂRANU[1] 

[1] National University of Political Studies and Public Administration, Bucharest (ROMANIA)



The populist movements became one of the most discussed topics in political science theory, but they are analyzed mainly on the perspective of political action, and recently in terms of discourse. But it seems the populist policies of member recruitment are merely neglected because this kind of policies is quite different from party to party and from country to country.

Populist movements acts toward society in a very peculiar manner: they are not coming to the society but they act like they are emerging from the society – and that makes them populist: they declare themselves as pure representatives of the people as the entire People. This why in contemporary societies populist movements have a different discourse that it was decades ago – poorer, culture less and mass oriented. Our hypothesis is that happened because the mass culture became poorer and mainly based on the same cultural recipe: good vs. evil, the bad guys against the good guys etc. The populist movements try to justify their acts in same manner in order to offer to their supporters a collective identity where they can recognize each other as part of the People (or Nation in different societies). The ideological cleavage is overtaking in an ethical manner, all ideologies are wrong so we are not acting ideological but according with the interest of the People. National or ethnic identity is call to become a collective identity but this identity is defined and shaped by the populist parties who impose themselves as the saviours of the People.


The concepts of Identity

The concept of identity keeps coming back into the political and cultural analysis along with the cleavage generated by the new populist/extremist trends in Europe and the United States.

Throughout the western world, political correctness as an inclusive ideology is abandoned in order to return to an exclusive policy model, obliviously based on identity constructions.

Thus, the paradox of economic globalization has led to an increase of political and discursive nationalisms: Donald Trump’s discursive model is taken from the European populist discourse – we and the others, the others being valued exclusively negative.

Therefore, we consider that an analysis of the principles of collective identity is more than necessary, because it has been theorized during the development phase of inclusion, and less analysed a perspective of exclusion. In addition, as seen essentially in the theory of collective identity, it becomes predominant by including the collective identity into national identity.

Thus, nationalism tends to homogenize all social groups (as it did in the 30’s with social classes) under the spectrum of the nation, where the individual and the group membership is melted in a single concept.

Identity is a descriptive element or, in other terms, a definition for existence and belonging. Identity is based on two pillars, both important: the identified and the identified. Which means that the individual is identified and identifies itself as the Self, while the society is identified as the Other. There is an alterity – the belonging to the Other and at the same time identification with the Self, because the Self is being defined by the Other, which is both contentious (as social environment) and content (as an education object). Jacques Derrida argues: “all identities can only exist with their „difference”. There is no culture or cultural identity that does not have the Other’s one Self” [1]. Thus, the identity originates from a confrontation between the universes of “subjectivity” (the self) and “objectivity” (the society understood as the Other).

It is not in the same way that collective identity is formed, because it should be the self- identification of the Other with itself, a complicated and quite incomprehensible process if there is no art as expression and language of self-referential mirroring. Going beyond the philosophy, which was and continues to be the cornerstone of existentialist philosophy, social sociology and psychology have shown an important interest in this concept.

It is beyond doubt that identity – especially collective identity – is an analysis key factor and an extremely important social marker. Social groups – equally studied by sociology and social psychology – formed either by vicinity (the sociological analysis of local communities) or common social bonds (in the area of social psychology) – develop collective identities represented by values, principles and traditions [2]. Thus, social groups – with presumptively different collective identities – represent the bricks of social construction that increasingly becomes subject of analysis in political sciences. And it is natural to be this way as this concept has been taken as an explanation for what it is usually denominated as “nation building” or national consciousness.

On the other hand, as we will see, the sociological theory has strangely utilized this concept because it has analyzed it rather ideologically than experimental.

The first theory – the essentialist theory – assumes that the collective identity is predetermined and hence it is fundamental for the members of a community. “Translated into assumptions upon identity, we find this idea – for examples see Brubaker and Cooper [3] or Cerulo [4] – under the following forms:

1. Collective identity is something natural, essential, permanent that is found in al people;

2. Collective identity pre-exists for all social actors, it is a biological, psychological, cultural or regional emergence;

3. The members of a community internalize the same essential characteristics in a unitary way, which suggests a determined, unique social experience.” [5, pp. 32-33]

Such a vision was also assumed by Ferdinand Tönnies [6] conservative perspective for which the Gemeinschaft (community) was natural and “organic”, while the Gesselschaft (society) was artificial and “mechanical”. Thus, the essentialist vision of collective identity represented the basis for the formation of the concept of national “conscience”, as a natural (even biologically racial) form.

Marxism has violently rejected this perspective by believing that national identity is a “false conscience”, because any conscience appears only as an expression of social existence – “it is not the conscience of men which determines their existence, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness” [7].

On the contrary, collective identity – as class identity – was considered to be the direct expression of social existence, as a social class represents, in Karl Marx’s perspective, “a group of individuals in a similar position to the means of production, playing the same role in the process of producing and appropriating the economic surplus” [7, pp. 320]. This identity is gained through the social experience of each individual, as a part of the class it represents, as an experience that shares the same social (and economic) practices, which conscientiously shapes them.

Such a perspective has, undoubtedly, the role of taking out the collective identity from the spectrum of nature, but which leads it towards a uniform identity of all the members of the group, until the personal features disappear, being replaced by class features.

Nowadays post-modern theories of collective identity are formed on the basis of constructivist theories and they want to replace the Marxist perspective from which they originally actually being with.

However, we cannot speak about one single theory upon this reality, but of a complex of theories which all start with the theory of social identity, concept defined by Henri Tajfel as “an emotional and rational complex derived from the awareness of belonging to a group and of the values attached to this status” [8].

What brings together this set of post-modern theories “are the basic assumptions about the knowledge and social reality on which these are built, in development and even multiple; things do not exist per se but are just categories or constructs generated by our perceptions. In terms of assumptions about identity, this idea can take any of the following forms:

1. Collective identity is a social construction;

2. Collective identity has an instrumental character;

3. Collective identity is a contextual representation, without substance, thus multiple and fluid” [5].

From these theories we observe that from the perspective of sociology and social psychology there is a strong reluctance to equate the collective identity (as an identity obtained through social experience) with national identity, especially if we accept the definition of the American thinker Benedict Anderson who defines the nation as a socially built community by its members, as an “imagined political community” [9], meaning a product of collective social imagination, corresponding to the needs for mobilization, integration and legitimation of modern society.


How identity shapes the political and social realities

On a political level, however, these differences between the collective identity and the national identity do not seem to work anymore. If after the Second World War, national identity was discreetly indexed, collective identities are on the forefront. Cultural and structural anthropology had shown how pre-state communities could function without a national conscience, while local communities tend to become more culturally and administrative autonomous, based rather on common social bonds than vicinity [10]. Thus, post-war states prepare the fertile ground so that the cultural-identity nation to be replaced by the civic nation – which represented the beginning of multiculturalism. Both political systems (Western and Soviet), at least formally, adhered to the principles of multiculturalism, hoping it will produce a more peaceful and more tolerant society, precisely because they recently experienced, during the world war, the features of an exaggerated and intolerant national identity. At international level, conflicts over identity issues have been avoided on the tacit assumption that all states were equally rational. However, when divergences occurred, these could be solved through rational discussions that did not include the “irrational” problems of identity. Eluding identity as a political factor, western identities have even come to resemble, and this has been and remains one of the fundamental principles of European integration.

All this created an illusory order, where identity, as the source of political power, especially nationalistic politics, belonged to the past, at least as far as Europe was concerned. There is a tacit assumption, generally speaking, that the days of the reasons have come and that identity, other the benign cultural expression, was no longer important.

Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis [11] meant nothing but specifying the details of these assumptions, although few were prepared to state it as clear as he did. From this perspective, Ireland and the Basque Country or Corsica was just temporary anomalies.

Thus, the golden age of collective identity (opposite to national identity) was contained during the Cold War, at least at declarative level. In reality, the crises of modernization generated by urbanization, industrialization, easier access to information and information transmission, generated a massive cognitive dissonance for many citizens who needed the security of membership. It is obvious that marginal environments, economic and social vulnerable groups are nowadays the ones who vote most with populist and extremist parties or leaders all around the world, who chose multiculturalism and political correctness as their opponent. But this is noticeable for some decades now, even if the political establishment of those times tried to keep at least the appearances of democratic tolerance.

In 2004, Samuel P. Huntington – well known for his conservative views – questioned the American society “who we are”, preaching, more than a decade ago, Donald Trump’s arrival at the White House: “all societies face threats to their existence, which can destroy them.

However, some societies are able to postpone their end, stopping and changing the evolution of decline processes renewing their vitality and identity. I think America can do this and that the Americans should once again assume their Anglo-protestant culture, traditions and values, which have been embraced by the Americans for three and a half centuries, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion, and which constituted the source of their freedom, unity, power, prosperity and their moral ascendant as a force of good in the world” [12].

The Romanian case

Romania seems a paradigmatic case for the recurrent construction and reconstruction of national identity. In every historical period, Romania faces new identity problems to which responds, strengthening over and over again the national identity against possible collective identities. And this is because Romania was born as a national state, that is, a state desired and founded by the elites and not by local (regional) communities, process common in the majority of Central and Eastern Europe states, Italy and Germany also. This process required the state’s supplementary effort in building legitimacy, not on the basis of collective (or class) identities, but by imposing national identity and absorbing collective identities.

Revolutionary France represented the nation building process that catalysed the entire liberal Europe and an example for most states in status nascendi. Only that the French process could not be copied altogether – and that is because we talk about another society and another political culture. In France, at least theoretically, the state was founded by citizens through Revolution, regulated by Constitution (Constitutions) and defended by them against foreign armies. The state building process continued by assimilating large communities (Occitans, Bretonians, Provensals etc.), which by 1850 represented France’s non-French half. The assimilation process was made through compulsory schooling in French language, compulsory military service for men and Church. Thus, in half century (until the First World War), France was ‘completely nationalized’, most of the collective identities absorbed into national identity.

In the case of Romania (but also Italy and Germany), the citizenship process was late (only in 1923 by introducing the universal male vote, in comparison to France 1848) and never complete. The state was founded by political (and economic) elites upon foreign examples, and the nation building process was late and complicated by adding new territories (Dobrogea in 1878 and its south in 1913, Basarabia, Bucovina and Transilvania in 1918, Banat in 1920) to the original ones (the United Principalities). Thus, the nation building process was resumed every time Romania gained or lost territories, which obviously made this process more complicated. The model was the same – compulsory schooling in Romanian language, military service for men and bureaucracy in Romanian language. Just that, unlike France, where the loss of collective identity in favour of the national one represented a personal and a status success, in Romania – which continued and continues to have national and cultural active minorities – collective identity was defended by these communities. This demonstrated that gaining a Romanian national identity is not perceived as a status gain, but a as status devaluation offered by the collective identity.

We do not have enough space for an in-depth semantic analysis, but the Romanian proverb, reiterated by Ion Creanga, is extremely suggestive in this sense: “better a leader in your village, then a shirker in a city” [13]. The city is seen as a space of loss of personal identity, while the community (as shown by Eric Fromm in his Fear of Freedom [14]) is a space of security and collective recognition. It is clear that the collective identity obtained and developed in the countryside, hard and almost never assimilated the national identity. The national identity has developed easily in contrast to other nationalities from the vicinity – Hungarians, Germans and Roma people [15]. But these identitary confrontations – produced within the state – had an interesting impact, in our opinion, that they transformed the national identity (of one group or another) in collective identities, more similar to premodern period than the nation building one.

Moreover, the ongoing confrontation proves that nation building was not a complete success and will probably never succeed. If in France, Germany or Hungary (but not in Italy, or in Spain – see the Catalan crisis) the assimilation process was fast and the collective identities have been obliterated, in Romania nation building avoided confronting cultural groups perceived as superior – Germans or Hungarians, and the communities considered cultural inferior – as Roma – were dodged, preferring the alterity to assimilation [15, pp.187].

In relative identitary-compact communities, or where this identity does not matter – in big cities – it was an attempt to introduce a multicultural and inter-identitary model meant to eliminate both the collective identity (perceived as sectarian) as the national identity (perceived as xenophobic and aggressive). Based on a liberal project, multiculturalism proposed in place of identity – as a space for emotions – the reason – as a space for citizenship. This model had a variable success in the Western world, but it was almost unsuccessful in the former Communist Europe. Theoretically, Marxism-Leninism adopted the idea that ethnic identities do not have important consequences, and therefore the assimilation of minority groups happens anyway (being an historically inevitable problem), so that the dominant national ethnic group occupies the most important place in a state. On the other hand, after 1989, these dominant groups have understood, to their unpleasant surprise, that they are still living in multi-ethnic states. Since then, there have been slow attempts towards an agreement between democracy and multi- ethnicity. Excepting Poland and Romania, ex-communist multi-ethnic states disappeared, but in Romania, the tension between the Hungarian community and the Romanian majoritarian one still remains important. It is interesting that the Hungarian minority in Romania, which has been for a long time tied to the cultural heritage of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, tends to develop a stronger collective identity different from both the Hungarian national identity and Romanian national identity. Since the autonomous project, there is a serious talk around a Transylvanian identity and a Transylvanian heritage, being built in the imaginary a mythical, multicultural and inter-ethnic peaceful Transylvania, separated by both Hungary and Romania.

In the post-communist period, the multicultural idea was an extremely marginal and terribly peripheral project, both territorially and culturally.

National identity was violently reinforced – see the cases of Targu Mures or Hadareni – but its conflict was not only with the concurrent national identities, but especially with collective identities which seemed to gain a dominant character – namely the peasantry identity.

Although during the communist period national identity has been strongly linked with the peasantry – naturally, because before 1948 the peasantry represented over 78% of the population [16] – after the revolution the peasants were considered to be a brake in the capitalist and democratic development of the country. Therefore, the peasant identity was culturally and socially disavowed (“you peasant” becoming a slander term, equivalent to illiterate, backward thinking, stupid, etc. similar to the American redneck) in order that after 2007 the name was changed – the villagers becoming from peasants, farmers. On the other hand, large social categories, which differentiate themselves through income structure, cultural and associational level and are put into a social homogenizing category – non-class, however – generically titled “civil servants” (bugetari).

Public servants, doctors, professors, social workers, engineers and employees of state run enterprises, as well as servicemen and policemen and many others, become a part of the same social category at a discursive level.

Thus, class identity, an important collective identity in the western world, has been replaced with a vague national identity, which however doesn’t resolve the major differences at a categorial level among the members of the same nation. National identity becomes fluid, because each social group identifies itself with “the nation” coming into conflict or collective dissonance. Because of this, each social group assumes its share of the “nation” but in a hologram model (each image is identical to the whole).

Starting from here we can understand the populist discourse in Romania and Poland, countries with similar political and national identity [17], through which addressing only a single social category, the conservative parties (regardless of their apparent ideological perspective) say that they represent the nation both from a discursive point of view as well as value-wise. Likewise, the opposition (political or civic) proposes itself as the unique expression of the nation by using the same hologrammatic national identity.

The ambiguity between the collective and national identity, as well as the absorption of class identity in the national identity has led to this political construct. Because, as is the case of Central and Eastern Europe, and specially the case of Romania, the already classic definition of Cass Mudde for populism (a thin ideology, which considers that society can be separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the “virtuous people” and the “corrupt elite” and which argues that politics should be the expression of the general will of the people [18]) does not work, because each social group considers itself to be the only “people”. Therefore, each political party in Romania assumes the right to speak in the name of the “Romanians” addressing each “national” identity separately. Moreover, parties transfer and insidiously strengthen the idea that each of the other groups is the cause of popular unhappiness (and by this, national). The existence of poor people (from the rural mostly) are the reason for the national backwardness – is the belief of an important part of the Romanian society. “On the contrary” thinks another part, the corporate employees that work for the largest multinational firms and who try to impose their own culture upon the Romanian society are those that produce such poverty (by lack of social empathy) as well as the unraveling of the social fiber.



The concept of identity is a concept used very often in the contemporary political discourse (and not only) because the symbolic charge has become especially important. But this concept, with its whole baggage of complementary elements – individual identity, singular, collective, class or national – is used with a strong manipulative character by contemporary political movements. They offer on the basis for this concept political explanations but, equally, generate elective affinities as well. Thus, populist movements especially (but already they are not the only ones) use the concept of collective identity and that of national identity in a form that is rather indistinctive, in such a way as to generate group fears and new political myths.


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2. Schiopu, (1997). Dictionar de Psihologie, Babel, Bucuresti, pp. 348, ISBN: 973-48-1027-8.

3. Brubaker, R., Cooper, (2000). Beyond „identity”. in Theory and Society 29, pp. 1-47, ISSN: 0304- 2421.

4. Cerulo, K.A. (1997). Identity construction: new issues, new directions. Annual Review of Sociology 23, pp. 385-409, DOI: 10.1146/annurev.soc.23.1.385.

5. Rusu, H.(2009). Teorii ale identității collective între esențialism și constructivism. De la identitate la identificar Sociologie Românească VII (1), pp. 31-44.

6. Tönnies, , Harris, J. (ed.) (2001). Community and Civil Society (Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thoughts), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 320 pp., ISBN 978-0521561198.

7. Engels, , Marx, K. (1966). Contribuții la Critica Economiei politice. in Opere Alese în două volume, Marx, K., Engels, F., vol I, Ed. Politică, Bucuresti, pp. 318.

8. Tajfel, (1978). Social Categorization, Social Identity and Social Comparison. in Differentiation between Social Groups: Studies in the Social Psychology of Intergroup Relations, Tajfel, H. (ed.), Academic, New York, pp. 63, ISBN: 978-0126825503.

9. Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso, London, pp. 42, ISBN 978-0860915461.

10. Maisonneuve, J., Lamy, L. (1993). Psychosociologie de l'amitie, Presses Universitaires de France, Paris, pp. 132, ISBN: 978-2130452706.

11. Fukuyama, (1997). Sfârșitul Istoriei și Ultimul Om. Paideia, Bucuresti, pp. 65, ISBN 978 -973-9131- 33-6.

12. Huntington, P. (2005). Cine suntem? Provocările la adresa identităţii naţionale americane, Antet, Bucuresti, pp. 8.

13. Creangă, I. (1979). Amintiri din Copilărie, Editure Ion Creanga, Bucuresti, pp. 48.

14. Fromm, (1998). Frica de Libertate, Universitas, Bucureşti, pp.68, ISBN: 973-601-402-9.

15. Mungiu Pippidi, A. (1999). Transilvania Subiectivă, Humanitas, Bucuresti, pp. 83, ISBN: 973-50-0020-2.

16. Schifirneț, C. (2009). Identitatea românească în contextual identității tendențiale, Revista Română de Sociologie, serie nouă XX (5-6), pp. 461-480, ISSN 1224-9262.

17. Haerpfer, C.W. (2002). Democracy and Enlargement in Post-Communist Europe, the democratisation of general public in fifteen Central and Eastern European Countries, 1991-1998, Routledge, London, pp. 231, ISBN: 978-0415274227.

18. Mudde, C., Kaltwasser, R.C. (eds.) (2015). Populismul în Europa și în cele două Amer Amentințare sau remediu pentru democrație?, Institutul European, Iași, pp. 27, ISBN 978-606-24-0117-7.


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