52B/52W, Week 2: Nationalisme et Démocratie



Nationalisme et Démocratie: Réflexions sur les illusions des indépendentistes québécois - Jean-Pierre Derriennic

I’m not gonna lie, I only read this because I’m a fanboy. Mr. Derriennic is a teacher of mine at the political science faculty of the University Laval, and one of the most recent addition to my personal teacher hall of fame. He’s a love or hate kind of a person, and word on him is extremely polarized: Ratemyteacher hates him (does ANY teacher get love from that site?), and yet there is a 100+ member Facebook group page dedicated to him. Me, I guess I like him because of the pace he sets. Once this guy is started, the best you can do to stop him is to side-track him with a good question, because there is just no stopping him. This man could probably make the Davis filibuster look like a 3rd grade show and tell. He’s clear, to the point and doesn’t dumb down anything: YOU have to put in extra work if you skipped a beat. His classes are a challenge, which is exactly why I took his class on the Middle East last semester. After getting a C- in a previous class with him, I took it just to prove myself I was good enough. In the end, I got a much better grade, and it’s probably the closest I’ll ever feel to winning the Olympics.

Anyhow, this book discusses nationalism in Quebec in a refreshing way, doing away with the worn-out arguments that have been presented for decades by both the separatists and federalists. Derriennic’s wealth of knowledge is used to provide practical, down to earth examples of what MIGHT occur in the event of a secession, provided through historical cases both similar and dissimilar. Possible problems and outcomes are provided mostly as bits of counterfactual history, a seldom used methodological tools which is sure to raise a lot of eyebrows. The aim of this method is not to construct a prophecy on the outcome of eventual sovereignty, or to invoke determinisms on the nature of sovereignty. Rather, I felt it to imply a warning that history is too often unpredictable, and that even the most elaborate of scenarios seldom are executed as planned. Where standard-issue federalist weaponry relating to practical means of secession is put to use, it is mostly to highlight the simplistic counterpoints proposed by the separatists (ex.: the implications of hostile unilateral separation on continuity of law).

Central to the argumentation of this essay is a notion of justice which I rather like. The author argues that Quebecois nationalists have an illogical vision of justice, having lamented “oppression of a minority” for decades while being unable to recognize that a winning referendum with a simple majority would create a new microcosm of the very situation they fought against, with the new minority being federalists. Clearly, Derriennic is a democrat, one who has realized that the good in democracy is brought by justice and the institutions that make it possible. There is no “social justice”, “justice for minorities”, or any other flavor of justice. There is only justice itself, the fair, universal application of law on an individual basis and in conformity with our institutional framework.  Derriennic argues that attempting to apply justice to groups is an error: it polarizes situations and robs the moderates of their power to dampen the decisional process, which has been proven to be a hazard to peace. Lucid on the shortcomings of any type of democracy, he falls back to it’s most coherent and immediately efficient form, institutionalism that is not unlike that of Karl Popper.

This book is easily read as a plea for the continuity of the federation, a long form of pro-federative editorial by those who are already convinced of the legitimacy of nationalism. A review I found dismissed the essay as unscholarly collection of arguments of bad faith, propaganda spread through authority with little factual backing. I don’t think that’s the point of this book. The lot of the essai aims to question the  picture-perfect scenarios that are constantly being brought up by both sides. In the scholarly world, it’s quite a bold thing to right an essay that has no bibliography or works cited; in this case, it’s deliberate provocation, provocation to thought. As such, this book is totally useless to those who are already convinced and unwilling to consider the “what ifs”.

The nation-state is concept which in our times is accepted as de facto legitimate and democratic. Benedict Anderson’s  Imagined Communities explored how the truistic association of nation and state is historically false, although not totally devoid of legitimacy.  This books continues to attack the legitimacy of the nationalism on the grounds of a concern for universal justice inspired by Kant, specifically in the case of Quebec and while being clear that nationalism does not necessarily imply injustice. This book is definitely a good read for Quebecois who are still on the fence between Yes and No: if you haven’t yet consolidated your opinion on nationalism with your conception of justice, this is definitely something to read.