Local and global identities

Interview with Furio Cerutti; Professor Emeritus of political philosphy
at Firenze University, Italy


(August 2005)

Note: Furio Cerutti is Professor Emeritus of Political Philosophy of the Department of Philosophy, University of Firenze, Italy.
In the past years Cerutti has been a Visiting Scholar at the Center for European Studies, Harvard University, and a Visiting Professor at the Université de Paris 8, the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and (in 2010) the London School of Economics and Political Science.
Moreover, as an associate of GARNET team (a Network of excellence funded by the EU), he worked on the issues of risk and responsibility in environmental governance.
Although political philosophy remains his main interest, Cerutti's research is interwoven with elements deriving from political science, International Relations and environmental studies.
He is the author of many books and articles such as "Global Challenges for Leviathan: A Political Philosophy of Nuclear Weapons and Global Warming", "The Search for a European Identity: Values, Policies and Legitimacy of the European Union", "Rethinking European Security", and editor of several books such as "Debating Political Identity and Legitimacy in the European Union", "The Search for a European Identity","A Soul for Europe: On the Political and Cultural Identity of the Europeans","- Identities and Conflicts: The Mediterranean" etc.
I conducted an interview with him in August 2005, which was published in Iran's "Hatef Weekly Magazine".


Nasrin Pourhamrang: firstly, I would like to present you a definition of Identity. In my view, personal identity is what the people can prove and proclaim their existence by using it.
What is your description of the identity of world population?

Furio Cerutti: If you mean identity of the humankind, there is none at the moment. Some philosophers or theologians or poets may try to evoke it, but in fact the real men and women around the planet accept to feel like members of the same community only as long as this is a particular and exclusive one (a country, a religion, an ideology or party).
The only presently binding element, the respect for the human rights of other people regardless of their particular features, is not yet enough widespread and is often overwhelmed by the allegiance to a particular community. Also the common fear that global challenges (the threat of nuclear war or catastrophic and manmade climate change) can inspire is not strong enough as to move everybody to feel like we are all on the same boat and need to act jointly. It is disappointing, but this is how things actually are, I am afraid.

NP: What is your opinion about the identity of contemporary people, in comparison with that of the past generation?
At least, in ancient and traditional world, people were identified by the means of religion, faith, race and ethnic issues. But the same is not true in the modern world. Identities are individual-oriented and each man searches for a certain identity for himself. What’s your take on that?

FC: You have correctly identified the shift in identity occurred in modernity, that is, if we look at Europe, from the sixteenth century on. The recent wave of economic and cultural globalisation has further destabilised traditional identities and pushed individuals to put together his\her identity by his\her own choice of several components. However, this is a difficult and even painful job, which makes many people struggle and some time resort to strong, if outdated and aggressive beliefs (religious foundamentalism, sects, ethno nationalism) that seem to provide a firm answer to the search for identity.

NP: what are the differences between the application of individual identities and the consequences of communal identities? Perhaps we can accept that liberty, freedom and human rights are the positive consequences and applications of individual identities. What’s its negative outcome?

FC: I would like to introduce a distinction between individual identities, which as a matter of fact everybody has (even if he\she believes to exist only as a member of a community), and individualistic identity, whose content is the priority of the individual human being over his\her own community as well as over power and authority. Human rights and human dignity, I am afraid, are hardly to defend if you think the religious or political community and those who exert power in it are always entitled to take the life and the liberty of the members for the sake of the community’s superior good. However, I also believe that individuals and community, individualistic and community-oriented identities can coexist and do in fact coexist in many countries and civilisations.

NP: In my view, there are a lot of differences between the philosophical nature of individual identities and communal identities. We can find these differences in their application and consequences. The communal identity makes the sense of power and truth. But the individual identities aren’t the same. At least, they don’t create the sense of power and humour. In the age of individual identities, people have a sense of need for a powerful shelter. It seems as if the sense of weakness and loneliness are created by the individual identities.
Of course, I think that the regard of moral principles is the positive result of individual identities. What is your view?

FC: I share your view, except that plural or (as I prefer to say) group identity does not seem to me to be necessarily in opposition to an individualistic identity. In the West, some of the models of group identity deriving from Enlightenment and cultural modernisation have been able to keep them in a balance, and have made possible to win the fight against the anti-human identity model of the various European totalitarianisms, or to rebuild a democratic society in the former Fascist countries after 1945.

NP: Can we call the individual identities the starting point of communal identities? For example, let us suppose that the activities of new-conservatives in the United States are the results of the appearance of communal identities. What do you think about that?

FC: For the first question, please see my answer to question 4. Among American neocons I would see the prevalence of extreme individualism (deregulated freedom based on self-interest) rather than a strong conception of community faith. This for sure also exists, but in an odd mixture with un-solidaristic individualism.

NP: I think that the people of the Netherlands and France or other European states have assumed that their “will” and “inclination” have been undermined by voting for the European Constitution. The constitution of the EU can originate a strong and powerful union throughout the entire world but politicians and diplomats will mainly profit from this power and force. This power has an upside-down influence and affects the people’s daily life. It means that people’s will and desires will be weakened and humiliated and they cannot act as they please based on their wills.
In the other word, they will run away from the communal identity (European Union's constitution) and take refuge in the other communal identities (local identities of their hometown) by voting against the EU constitution. What’s your view?

FC: The French and Dutch referenda have been a very complicate event, which I cannot explain in this answer. In the October issue of European Review, the quarterly of the European Academy published by Cambridge University Press, you can read my analysis and my comments.
In a word, you are indeed right: the European Union has a lot of (mostly benevolent) power, even if it lacks the supreme power of deciding over peace\war and taxation, which remained with the individual member states even in the now failed Constitutional Treaty. But most people around Europe know little about this power and its mechanisms, nor do the national governments any serious effort in order to make the citizens know better about the Union and participate in its political life. If something (loss of jobs caused by globalisation, failed integration of immigrants, for example) goes wrong in our countries, they blame not just their own governments, but also the Union (as it happened in France, where they voted against the EU Constitution because they wanted to give Chirac a lesson) or believe (as in the Netherlands) things will be better if they remain just Dutch and do not become Europeans (but, whatever demagogues may say, nobody asked them to give up their own national identity in favour of the European one, which is rather bound to cohabit with local and national identities). As a matter of fact, the Dutch and French vote has the perverse effect to leave the Union’s large power in the hands of national and EU bureaucracies, just as it was before. As you can see, the interplay of power and identity is a complicate and tortuous one in today’s Europe.

NP: Reaction for returning to the ethnic and national identities is not just limited to European people's decision in voting against EU constitution. Globalization is another field and area for the appearance of such reactions. I want to know your idea about globalization process. Is globalization a really concrete process or an abstract and imaginary process?

FC: Globalization is a very real process, you can perceive it with your senses if you have the ability to grasp what has changed in the way how we communicate for the past ten years, or to see the global forces in economy and technology that, once they have formed, now invade our space in a matter of months or weeks. Globalization is the first cause for ethnic and exclusive identities to come up in a viru.
lent way. It is the sense of falling mental and physical borders, of new opportunities mixed with new insecurity that drives people to find refuge in illusory strong identities. This defensive reaction can cause great harm, but is bound to have no success in its attempt at stopping or reversing globalization. What is at stake and can be redefined is the direction of the globalization process, in other words. how can we have influence on global governance?
At least in France, the opposition to the EU Constitutional Treaty derived largely from the attitude of seeing it as a further step towards "wild" globalization, particularly more jobs leaving France and finding a new home in the Eastern European countries or the Third world. This is a misperception, but misperceptions can be very powerful and very damaging.

NP: Is returning to national and racial identities, a background of increasing and aggravating ethnic and personal disunities and battles, destroying human rights and returning to former wars?

FC: I do fully agree, with two qualifications. First, beyond ethno nationalism religion has gotten to be a major cause of hatred, war and disregard for other human beings. Not all religions, as in recent times this development regards only Islam and Hinduism. Nor Islam and Hinduism as such, but rather some aggressive and backwards-oriented version of them. As they have proved unable to receive acceptance by the majority of the Muslims and Hindus, they have turned to violence and war propaganda.
Second, it is not "former wars" that are fomented by those forces. On the contrary, these are the wars of the present, caused by the dynamics of a short-sighted ideological reaction to globalization. This kind of reaction will not prevail, because the positive forces in globalization (more openness, more exchange of goods and ideas) are overwhleming, but they will cause a lot of damage and sorrow for a long time ahead.

NP: How we can guide and lead the trajectory of globalization and reduce its negative consequences? How we can feed the world population by the positive results of globalization, especially the 3rd world people?

FC: Globalization can be lead only if all parties stick to a rule-based behavior, abstain from war (except when a nation's survival is at stake, or genocide is attempted) and from hate propaganda. Famine crises can be avoided if war and dictatorship are restrained and the rich countries (US,EU) stop to protect their own agriculture products and import more agricultural and industrial products from the Third World.
A new organization would be welcome, is however far from materializing. Not even a sensible reform of the UNO has much chance to come about. For a while at least, we will be only able to pick up the best chances of action that are possible within the present spectrum of international institutions.