Property Relations and Social Closure: The Origins of ‘Imagined Communities’ in the Ottoman Middle East.

Jonathan Viger


This paper aims at exploring the socio-historical conditions of the emergence of ‘imagined communities’ in the Arab Middle East through a critical interaction with the frameworks of modernist and constructivist theories of nationalism. According to these approaches, the concept of the nation as constituted of formally equal individuals is only made possible by the dissolution of premodern – local, status-based, and hierarchically structured – forms of subjectivities/solidarities. This process of development of horizontal – as opposed to vertical – forms of solidarities is closely associated with the development of capitalism, or as Ernest Gellner puts it, the emergence of ‘industrial society’. Our argument challenges this last claim, instead of presupposing the development of capitalism, we will aim to take a closer look at how the transformations of social-property relations influences the development of nationalism as a form of social closure. We will attempt to show how the development of competing forms of ‘imagined communities’ in the Arab Middle East take their roots in the precapitalist social and geopolitical relations of the Ottoman Empire. The fiscal crisis triggered by the end of the geopolitical expansion of the Empire led to a major shift in social-property relations centered on the growing sale, trading, and leasing of tax-farms and venal office. This ‘marketization’ and ‘democratization’ of access to state privileges led to the contestation and erosion of the ‘classical’ imperial worldview based on a sharp distinction between a hereditary elite of rulers/administrators/military men (askeri) and tax-paying lower classes (reaya). This led to the emergence of ‘imagined communities’ – including Turkism and Arabism as the forbearers of nationalist ideology – as modern, but non-capitalist, forms of agencies/solidarities centered on the state as a mean of accumulation and reproduction.

Property Relations - Nationalism - Geopolitics - Uneven Geographies - Middle East and North Africa