The Relationship Between Power and Identity


This was originally published in The New Context, New School’s Journal of International Affairs (Dated 11.28.2012). Direct link can be found here.


Power of authority organizes and propels itself through notions of identity and is therefore, to an extent, defined by the cohesion of a people’s collective identification. Simultaneously, identity is constructed according to the interests of power. Thus, the interaction between power and identity is nonlinear.

Whether it is the Romans prosecuting Christians and then becoming defenders of an empire said to be “rooted” in Christianity, or Turks spreading Islam in the Balkans after having adopted it in the Middle East, this ongoing relationship is evident. These empires consolidated and justified their power through identity manipulation, and each redefined its subjects as it expanded through time and space.

Power, to use Carl Schmitt’s definition, is the sovereign authority that decides on the state of emergency and what is to be considered lawful or unlawful (Schmitt, 12). This authority can manifest itself in the form of a nation-state, as is common in present times; however, it could also come in other organizational forms such as empires and caliphates. Authority and power then are synonymous in Schmitt’s account: “Everyone agrees that whenever antagonisms appear within a state, every party wants the general good…. But sovereignty (and thus the state itself) resides in deciding this controversy, that is, determining what constitutes public order and security, in determining when they are to be disturbed. And so on” (Schmitt, 9). But an authority’s decision is only the starting point to the power-identity relationship: The tools and methods used to implement that decision, the process of ruling itself, creates myriad unintended consequences. Any reconstitution of peoples through boundaries, institutions, social organization and other arrangements helps construct identities the sovereign might not have had in mind.

Collective identity refers to how a population identifies itself—whether in terms of nationality, religion, ethnicity or a combination thereof. One form of identification might be older than the other, another more cohesive and vocalized, but how they emerge or assert themselves depends on the circumstances, not chronological order. In many parts of the world, religion is a less influential form of identity than modern nationalism; however, if the context changes in its favor, religion can overtake nationalism as an influential force. In other instances, the two identities can converge and create something new, or they can both be subordinated by another force, such as ethnicity.

Etienne Balibar, a professor of moral and political philosophy at Université de Paris X, argues in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities that past power structures and historical events appear to us to be “pre-national,” as if they were all playing part in the formation of what emerged as modern nation-state (Balibar, 88). For instance, Balibar asks, “where…are we to situate the origins of France? With our ancestors the Gauls? The Capetian monarchy? The revolution of 1789?” (Balibar, 86). The attempt to make them all part of an identical pattern, according to him, is an illusion (Balibar, 86).

As he notes, this is nothing but the nationalist mythical narrative, since the nation-state is more a result of “a series of conjunctural relations….” Further, he asserts that the closer we come to modernity the more these “conjunctural relations” are brought together by the nation-state (Balibar, 88). Thus the nation-state synthesizes other identities and subordinates them to its own in his view. But Anthony D. Smith, professor of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics, argues that nationality is not “the top of the evolutionary process” (Smith, 13).  Smith emphasizes the durability of ethnicity instead. His point is that the ethnie persists, and that “only in quite exceptional circumstances do outside pressures, in concert with internal alterations, engineer a radical breakdown of the quality of ethnicity…” (Smith, 16). While recognizing differences between ethnicity, nationality and other identity categorizations, both Balibar and Smith seem to support the idea and point made here that a group’s collective identity is not eternally static—even if some might be bound to persist more than others.

Since identity is not static, how does power influence its development? Benedict Anderson, highly renowned for his work on nationalism, argues in “Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism” that identity was largely constructed due to modes of colonial rule, namely three institutions of power: census, map and museum. Through the census, colonial powers quantified ethnicity (Anderson, 4). Through maps (Anderson, 6), this logic of total top-down classification continued with the drawing of borders. Colonial powers even created their own classifications of the past—“museums”— by (re)writing history according to their own interests and perspectives. For example, the label of Indonesia, Anderson argues in the book, came largely as a result of colonial rule. Before colonization, peoples of what is now called Indonesia had no feeling of a shared identity or a common past amongst themselves. Colonizers drew a map, quantified its population and re-created “commonness” based on their own reflections. As a consequence, those Southeast Asian peoples became one population, under one map and with one history, which enabled the actualization of an Indonesian nation and nationalism.

The interests of authority are arguably even more influential than the tools of statecraft referred to above. Authority wants to maintain and strengthen its power by expanding in time and space. Mahmood Mamdani, a prominent intellectual who studies colonialism and its consequences in Africa, elaborates on how colonial powers manipulated societies to achieve their own ends and changed the way societies function in the process. As he notes in “Decentralized Despotism,” many African tribes were dominated by elderly chiefs. However, their relationship with the tribe was characterized by communal codes setting shared and divided responsibilities (Mamdani, 42–43). The “full-blown village-based despot, shorn of rule-based restraint” only emerged as chiefs became agents of colonial interests (Mamdani, 46). With the modern “containerization” of peoples into nation-states, one can almost see a magnified and more complex picture of the same process: modes of identity in general reconstructed to preserve and increase an authority’s own power. Borders drawn by colonial powers throughout Africa, to a large extent, became lines that define the differences among the continent’s nationalities today.

European colonialism is but one example of how power constructs identity. Another is Turkey’s transition from the Ottoman Empire to a modern nation-state in the 1920s. Attempts by the Turkish regime under Kemal Mustafa Ataturk to remove religion from the state were part of the project to re-create Turkish identity, and for the regime to solidify its own power as protector of that identity. As nation-state scholar Srirupa Roy postulates that removing Arabic from namaz prayer, putting Muslim clerics under state payroll (read: control), changing the calendar from Hijri Muslim to Gregorian, making Sunday rather than Friday a day of rest, and adopting surnames as opposed to naming in accordance with Islam (Roy, 162–164) were all part of Ataturk’s strategy to emphasize nationality over religion.

This demonstrates to an extent how power constructs identity and solidifies its own position through it. Nevertheless, it does not explicate the second point of the argument: how power itself is defined by identity. In these very same examples one can witness this progression. Indonesia’s national identity, while largely constructed by colonial rule, became defined by a power structure that developed through anti-colonial struggle. Indonesians, while trying to free themselves from British colonialism, were at the same time involved in a nation-building project that organized society in its own way. This way required a re-assertion or institutionalization of collective identity. As Balibar notes, states are involved in a “delayed nationalization of society,” and this results in the subordination of individuals to the status of citizen “of the nation-state” (Balibar, 92).

So, while it is often easier to recognize authority’s role in constructing identity, one can also witness authority being redefined by the reaction to that role. The tools of statecraft used by the British utilized space, time, and the spiritual and material world to make Indonesian identity real. As a result, Indonesian nationalism has given shape and form to an indigenous power structure.

This leads to the third point. The relationship between power and identity is nonlinear, with power wanting to secure, maintain and expand on its position, and identity wanting to defend itself by gaining power. The two forces cooperate, fight and blur to the extent that telling them apart becomes nearly impossible. Nonetheless, each continues to possess a level of its own agency.

If representatives of a certain identity group grab power, or influence the state, they will often exaggerate identity politics based on their own biases and interests. The group in power would likely push out other identity groups or try to assimilate them, while promoting their preferred mode of identity, be it ethnic, religious or regional. The identity shifts foisted on the general population reverberate back to those in power. Thus, even the representatives of the group in power would be engaged in the reconstruction of their own identity through individualistic and small group considerations.

In essence, Balibar seems to be right when he says nation-states are products of colonialism all the way, “In a sense, every modern nation is a product of colonization: It has always been to some degree colonized or colonizing, and sometimes both at the same time” (Balibar, 89).

I would disagree that this is solely a characteristic of the modern nation. The interaction between power and collective identity is ongoing and prevalent in every form of social organization, not necessarily just modern nations. Authority power then, not only in the form of nation-state, can be viewed as a product of colonization, colonizing, and at times both simultaneously. Post-Ottoman Turkey is a colonizer in the eyes of its Southeastern self, inhabited by ethnic Kurds. At the same time, it is a product of internal colonization: Turkey was transformed from a more ethnically inclusive Ottoman-Islamic region into a state of nationalistic Turkification.

It is this interconnectedness that makes conflict a perpetual possibility, if not a necessity. Identity and power evolve dependent on their relation to each other. To an extent, this explains the diversity of conflicts, from the Balkan region where they take the color of ethnic violence, to those with religious and sectarian colors in the Middle East, or Communal in India and so on. Looked at from a larger picture, they are all the same process and of this same nature—only under different context. These dynamics between power and identity are important definers of whether social organization (in modern nation or any other form) will emerge as violent or peaceful.

Thus, power never seems to be living in a parallel world with identity. It is meaningful only through it. At the same time, power continuously reconstructs identity according to its interests. It picks and chooses identity traits it likes or it cannot ignore and imposes as well as defends them from others it identifies as alien or dangerous. Acknowledging that identity is not  static, and that tools, interpretations and interests are involved in its constant definition and re-definition, the outcomes are situational and contextual and do not necessarily follow a linear or chronological order.

Ard Morina, graduate student in The New School’s international affairs program 

Works Cited

Anderson, Benedict.  “Census, Map, Museum,” in “The Origins of National Consciousness” London: Verso. 1991

Balibar, Etienne, and Immanuel Wallerstein. “The Nation Form: History and Ideology” in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. 1992.

Mamdani, Mahmood. “Decentralized Despotism,” in Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1996

Schmitt, Carl. Political Theology : Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago, 2006.

Smith, Anthony.  “Are Nations Modern,” in The Ethnic Origins of Nations.  London. Blackwell. 1988

Srirupa Roy (2010) “Temple and Dam, Fez and Hat: the Secular Roots of Religious Politics in India and Turkey,”  in Commonwealth and Comparative Politics Vol 48 No 2 April 2010 148-172.

Politicization and Technology in the Human to War Relationship



It is apparent that technology has changed the way war is conducted.  Just think of these real case scenarios within last two years.  Trained to kill from behind the screen, an American military officer directs the drone from thousands of miles away to hit Al Qaeda targets in the mountains of Pakistan.  Another drone falls in Iranian hands, giving its army the privilege to exploit newest technology possessed only by its enemy.  Within stated timeframe, protestors in Egypt use Facebook to organize and bring down the regime.  In turn, the government utilizes the same social tool to identify and trace organizers.  This does not in any way resemble traditional narrative of war where armies meet in the battlefield.  Yet, something fundamental about it remains unchanged – to use Clausewitz’s description of war, it continues to be an “…act of force to compel our enemy to do our will” (Clausewitz, 1976).  With Facebook, force is not used, only people are organized to go out and face the opposing force.  Nevertheless, when two opposing forces are faced against one another, there is a clash – a war.  Hence, based on this classical definition, it is fair to say that in essence war is war whether it is organized in a cave or through Facebook, or whether it is conducted with drones or spears.  Subsequently, with new technology humanity does not get removed from war.  Technology is only an additional tool in the relationship between humans and war.  The outcome this relationship produces is dependent on the level of politicization of the issue between opposing forces.

When in a war, technology is used by one of the two opposing forces, or both.  Subsequently, at one time or another there is a victim in which case there must also be a perpetrator.    Christian Caryl notes the fact that U.S. trains more Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) operators than traditional pilots to illustrate the shift which has taken place in modern warfare (Caryl, 2011).  As Caryl states, there are various machines and robots, for air and ground, being built and experimented on to become “the next thing” in war (Caryl, 2011). From perspective of the victims of this new technology, and those sympathetic to them, loss of life on their side is one powerful reason to fuel more hatred.  Caryl says as much when arguing that drone attacks have increased suicide bombings in Pakistan (Caryl, 2011).  Here, the U.S. force has been used against terrorists, and they have increased use of force (to the extent that their means and morals allow) in retaliation.  Is there a removal of the human from this new form of warfare then? In the receiving end it does not seem so.

What about the UAV operator?   Is (s)he really removed from the brutality of war? And if so, what effect does it have in the relationship between human and war?  Even if action is visible on the screen, that is not as real as being out there in the bushes shooting and getting shot at.  Hence, we are inclined to think that the person is in actuality removed from the feeling of killing, and can consequently conduct the action with more ease. But as Caryl notes, “…studies by the military have shown that UAV operators sometimes end up suffering the same degree of combat stress as other warfighters” (Caryl, 2011).  Regardless of the level of ease during the execution of soldier duties, to comprehend whether the removal we speak of is real the more important question should be, is the UAV operator conscious of the action?  Because since (s)he knows that (s)he is in fact killing what according to him/her is the enemy, no matter how easy or indirect the execution might be, that person will still feel responsible for having taken a life.  The reasoning which has given the okay to kill is therefore the factor determining relationship between human and war, not technology.

Therefore, we have gone almost full circle in trying to find the connecting point in this relationship between perpetrator, victim and technology and ended up with the subject of ethics as the answer.  Where does the “okay to kill” come from in this new form of warfare?  Is it different from the traditional “okay to kill”? If so, what is the difference?  Subject is treated by Derian, on “Virtous War” who argues that in this new surrounding cause of war becomes virtuous, with it the enemy becomes virtualized until all is left of him/her is a demon (Derian 2001).  This gives us the impression that we are talking about a video game with humans vs. demons.  It begs the question, modern technology and virtualization aside, has it not been the case in most, if not all, wars throughout history that own cause is deemed righteous and enemy is considered wicked?  Aside from romanticized versions of the past, when exactly has the enemy been recognized as virtuous while at war? If that had been the case, how come historical data speaks of wars where losers are enslaved?  Such was the case with the ancient Greeks themselves which in mythology brag about virtuous warriors, but other historical accounts – such as noted by Thucydides in “History of the Peloponnesian War” refer to nasty conflicts where whole populations are enslaved (Thucydides, 1954).  Furthermore, what about the atrocities and genocide such as the Holocaust, Rwanda, or the Balkans? To name just a few!  There must have been a serious level of dehumanization and demonization taking place in order to be able and justify annihilation of whole peoples identified as enemies.   By recognizing them as equally human and without believing in their own cause as righteous, it is doubtful that such atrocious crimes could have occurred.

The process of dehumanization and demonization of those defined as the enemy therefore seems to play a crucial role in the drive to use and justify the use of force.  This appears because of politicization of the issue between the opposing sides.  Carl Schmitt’s view of politicization is useful in understanding why.  According to Schmitt, “What makes an issue “political” is the particularly intense relationship that actors feel toward it.  In its fullest form this intensification yields an absolute divide between friend and enemy in relation to (any) given issue” (Williams, 2003).  Hence, Schmitt argues that political is “…the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point”.  (Williams, 2003). Under such hostile environment, anything that helps as a means to destroy the enemy will likely be used, including newest available technology.  For instance, terrorists use tactics that very much politicize their cause, in turn inviting more condemnation and a higher level of mobilization in the fight from their targets.  The U.S. State Department’s definition of terrorism as “politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatants targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience” recognizes the importance that politicization can play in the formation of war (Devetak, 2005).  The definition is helpful as it gives us insight into how whether with constructed or real threats, each can reach a degree of intensity that justifies war which in normal situation would be considered as unjust.

In addition, what we get from this is that the fundamental definition of war as stated in the beginning holds true.  This is exemplified by the case where both the technologically advanced U.S. as well as suicidal terrorists act as forces opposed to one another, each trying to compel the other to do its will.  Again, applying Schmitt’s rationale in modern warfare, it can be said that once extreme politicization is reached where the enemy is identified as existential threat, it matters little whether one side can kill the other with more ease or not since it is the desired outcome to win over the enemy that becomes the objective.  Meaning, the operation whether conducted with drones or hands is in neither case done for the fun of it.  Those who end up participating in such mission, ultimately become victims, perpetrators or both!

Something similar is echoed by David Campbell in “Writing Security” when he states, “Nothing is a risk in itself; there is no risk in reality.  But on the other hand, anything can be a risk; it all depends on how one analyzes the danger, considers the event” (Campbell, 1992).  Campbell himself recognizes the fact that in addition to the subjectivity of risk and threat, there are also real dangers such as violence, disasters etc. Nevertheless, it is crucial to comprehend how the two get fused and what role interpretation plays in the process.  Campbell notes how something as unthreatening as a book can be considered a danger to national security and something as simple as different identity can be understood as a threat (Campbell, 1992).  The dilemma of whether a threat is a result of subjectivity or objectivity in itself emphasizes just how significant the whole process of human rationalization of an issue is in respect to war and war making.  It highlights that this turning point between the identification of something as existential threat or someone as an enemy will determine whether humans involved in this interplay will be engaged in warfare or not.

The battlefield has therefore taken a new shape.  It is now more asymmetric and because of technology also more virtual.  The fundamental meaning of war, however, has not changed. War continues to be use of force to subdue the enemy.  Based on this understanding, inquiries into whether humans are removed from war because of technology are well deserved.  Nonetheless, as we analyze further the relationship between humans and war from the perspective of ethics and causes, we recognize that technology is only an additional tool.  The more politicized an issue is and the graver the threat from the enemy considered, the higher the chances that people will utilize available technologies and strategies to bring down the enemy. Consequently, as we experience modern warfare, we should keep in mind that it is up to how threats are defined and rationalized that ultimately determines connection between war and humans.

Works Cited

Campbell, David. (1992). (Introduction and Chapter 3) (Pages, 1, 3, Writing security: United states foreign policy and the politics of identity. Retrieved from

Caryl, Christian. (2011, September 29). Predators and robots at war. The New York Review of Books. Retrieved from

Clausewitz, Carl Von. (1976). (Page, 75). On War. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Derian, James Der. (2001). Virtuous War. (Chapters 2 and 3) (Page   Retrieved from

Devatak, Richard. (2005). (Page, 2) Violence, Order, and Terror. Retrieved from

Thucydides. (1954). History of the Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Group.

Williams, Michael C. (2003). Words, images, enemies: Securitization and international politics. International Studies Quarterly, (47), 511-531. Retrieved from

Why is Thucydides so frigging relevant?

You probably get plenty of Thucydides in your daily readings (if you are into IR stuff), and here comes some more.  Realists like to use him as a source and even when he is not directly quoted his reasoning tends to usually be there.  In addition, whether people identify as realists, idealists or whatnot, whether they agree or disagree with the theories etc. is completely irrelevant to the fact that Thucydides continues to be…well, relevant.

Today, New York Times had this article on Iran’s navy holding war games in the crucial sea lane of the Strait of Hormuz. You can sense it from the reading itself that things are heating up as they have increasingly been for decades between the United States and Iran.  Each side seems to make the other a little nervous and as nervousness increases so does the sense of insecurity.  With that comes the need to show some muscle and in the process of doing so things become sensitive to the point where one incident could trigger confrontation.

So, think of this statement from Thucydides as you follow further developments, “It is better to have the initiative in these matters – to take our own measures first, rather than be forced to counter the intrigues that are made against us by others”. Then it follows, “When one makes concessions to one’s enemies, one regrets it afterwards and the fewer concessions one makes the safer one is likely to be”.

Iran has not shown itself willing to make concessions on the nuclear issue, and U.S. remains firm in its position against a nuclear theocracy.  Each side has done the best they could to achieve their ends without resorting to war (one not going all the way to become nuclear and the other seeking regime change short of open conflict), however, neither will be able to succeed in that tempo indefinitely precisely because the interest of each player is in complete opposition to the other’s, concessions are considered weaknesses and weakness is last thing one wants to project in the eye of its rival.

Hence, as clock ticks and things change in an environment where neither actor is willing to concede, knowing that initiatives will be taken from both to “counter the intrigues that are made…by others”, one is forced to ask, “Are we in an irreversible course that will ultimately lead us to war?”  Okay, this does not mean that war is inevitable and that there won’t happen something along the way which will change the outcome of the story (like a pro-democracy revolution in Iran, or a U.S. decision to contain rather than strike), nonetheless, it would be naïve to not recognize the direction towards which this whole thing seems to be moving.

You can read some interesting discussions on the subject here, here and here.

1 + 1 = Gaddafi will die? Trying to rationalize everything!

I invite you to read this post on Dart Throwing Chimp.  It’s very interesting.  After you have read it, I give you a hint to his inquiry.  Ben Ali thought differently from Gaddafi because people are different.  It’s not that complicated, really.  Beliefs, passions and ideas sometimes overshadow reason and Gaddafi is a perfect example of that.  The author raises good questions, but at the same time, you can’t set a theory which predicts dictators’ behavior.  That is what his writing is leaning towards. 

As much as people are led by self-interest, survival instinct etc., they are also driven by ideas, beliefs, and emotions.  I thought at least academics knew this.

Think of this painting below.  Something more than money led to its creation.  Whether for good (the painting), or bad (Gaddafi’s rule and his decision to fight until death), there’s usually more to it than meets the eye.  Attempting to put all of it in a box is, if I may say, impossible.  It would require either our understanding of reality in its entirety, or limiting our definition of reality so that it fits our box.  It is quite obvious that there are plenty of things out there which we don’t understand in respect to what leads humans to do X and not Y.  So the second option is what we would really do if we came up with a theory to explain Gaddafi’s behavior vs. Ben Ali’s.  In a nutshell, you can predict dictator’s behavior just as much as someone sitting close to Klimt could predict what he was going to paint, with what colors, and why he thought those colors were important…if you get a glimpse of it.

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