The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka, Part I, Xabier Renteria-Uriarte


Does it make sense to shoot a rifle at a plane moving away in the sky? Moreover, does this action make sense when the plane is supported by the tanks, warships and aircraft carriers of a powerful regular army? This metaphor illustrates the social myths of the oppressed against the myths and epistemic structures of the great political powers. Currently, the greatest epistemic oppressors are the elites of nations with a political state. The most epistemically oppressed peoples reside in nations without a political state. States may have a social myth, such as ‘we are the first nation-state,’ which resembles a rifle. But their basic myth is that they are ‘nation-states’ or uni-national and, metaphorically, this is already a whole tank. States have warships, planes and aircraft carriers—or epistemic structures of education, information and laws. So, what can the social myths of the oppressed, which function as mere rifles, do? I will argue that, yes, it makes sense to shoot a rifle at a plane receding into the sky. In addition, in this ‘post-Fanon era’ in which capitalist states have won almost all their wars and practice low-intensity warfare such as lawfare, the rifle can no longer support ‘the psychology of the oppressed,’ but social myths can still be trusted. … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Owen J Fitzpatrick via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Renteria-Uriarte, Xabier. 2023. “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (6): 61–75.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Editor’s Note: Xabier Renteria-Uriarte’s article “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka” will be presented in two parts. Please find below Part I. Please refer to Part II.

This article replies to:

❧ Masaka, Dennis. 2023. “A Critical Response to Renteria-Uriarte’s ‘Counteracting Epistemic Oppression through Social Myths’.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 12 (5): 48–57.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Renteria-Uriarte, Xabier. 2023. “Counteracting Epistemic Oppression Through Social Myths: The Last Indigenous Peoples of Europe.” Social Epistemology doi: 10.1080/02691728.2022.2153350.

Dennis Masaka (2023, 42–51), from the Great Zimbabwe University, Zimbabwe and the University of the Free State, South Africa, has given a critical reply to my article ‘Counteracting Epistemic Oppression Through Social Myths’ (Renteria-Uriarte 2023).

I applied the notion of ‘social myth,’ as an idealization of a past successful event that serves to mobilize social awareness in recent literature on epistemic injustice. I delved into the Basque social myth of ‘The Last Indigenous Peoples of Europe’ against the French and Spanish states as a special case of serious epistemic ‘wars’ between epistemic oppressors (in this case, state powers) and oppressed (in this case, minorized nations).

In response, Masaka (2023) makes explicit some doubts about the effectiveness of social myths and the need to argue them more consistently and warns about the reaction of epistemic oppressors.

The state power holders may counter the counteracting power of the social myth of the Basque nation in particular by inventing their own set of myths” and “this is something that might not be avoided in assessing the promise of social myths in overturning epistemic and other social oppressions (56).

Beyond nuances, I proposed a first step on a research path, and as Masaka claims to take the next step into account, I do not see any essential contradictions. However, to continue the discussion, I will clarify and reinforce some common postulates; especially, the idea that ‘any (political and epistemic) myth’ is not a ‘social myth’, at least according to Sorel (who proposed the notion) and Gramsci (who popularized it). While I am not going to perform a step-by-step analysis of Masaka’s points, I hope the following arguments and their related metaphors can clarify the next phase of the discussion from my point of view.

So, what are social myths and how can they counteract epistemic injustices? What myths, social or not, are held by those who exercise epistemic injustices, and how do they make the social myths of the oppressed lose value? Basically, my response can be summed up by the following metaphor: regular armies have M-16 rifles and they also have tanks, warships and planes; so, rifles are not as important to them as AK-47s are to guerrilla movements and are vitally important—even if they will never beat planes and carriers.

Let us begin.

Everyone Has Knives to Live with — and maybe an M-16 or AK-47 to Wage War

The Sorelian sense of ‘social myth’ is not ‘any myth’, and such ‘universe of discourse’ is the starting point of my former contribution (Renteria-Uriarte 2023). For a constructivist, every notion is a sort of conceptual myth. In politics, we have a conception that a large part of the ideas assumed in a given environment can be understood as ‘political myths’ (Bottici 2007). In this sense, everyone has a myth that is social along with the cognitive tenets to understand the world and act in it (Renteria-Uriarte 2022). Metaphorically, then, everybody has knives as tools for living. However, in the Sorelian and Gramscian sense, a ‘social myth’ is an idealization of a past successful event that serves to mobilize social consciousness and, at times, social action. A social myth is, like poetry for Gabriel Celaya, ‘a weapon loaded with future’ (Celaya 1955). More than a knife to cut bread and live, a social myth is rather a ‘rifle in hand’ to strengthen collective identities and, sometimes, to try to achieve collective goals.

In reference to my opening metaphor: any side of an epistemic injustice and oppression, be it the side of the oppressors or the side of the oppressed, can have social myths to achieve its goals, just as any side involved in a war has a kind of rifle (perhaps an M-16 or AK-47). However, is the social myth a weapon loaded with the same importance or ‘future’ for oppressors and oppressed? I do not think so. M-16s are of less importance to regular armies (as a common rifle belonging to strong states), than AK-47s are to guerrilla movements (usually associated with oppressed collectives and nations).

The difference comes from the fact that regular armies not only have M-16 rifles, but also tanks, warships and planes. Guerrilla movements tend to be limited to their AK-47s, lacking warships and planes. States often have social myths about themselves, and it is not uncommon to involve the oppressed (as certain ‘glorious’ battles can do), but when all epistemic structures are controlled, this is of less importance. On the other side, the oppressed have to deal with their social myths, with their rifles, and at times they can control the area from the bell tower with a machine gun, However, when the enemy aircraft arrives, it’s time to take cover.

The most common type of epistemic injustice in the world is the epistemic oppression of nations with a political state which try to impose their identities and cultures on the identities and cultures of minority nations within their borders (Renteria-Uriarte 2022). Obviously, when it comes to epistemic conflicts, social myths are vital as highlighted by Sorel and Gramsci. In such ‘social myth wars’ the key of antiquity is especially important—not only for the oppressed (as I focused on in my article) but also for oppressors and state powers as the main epistemic oppressors. This is where I will focus now, building on Masaka’s reply. In the case of the States, the social myth of ‘we are the first’ may be present, but it is not the most important. This example shows us that although social myths are present in statist discourses, they are not the most important epistemic tools or ‘weapons.’

The M-16 of Statist Social Myths: ‘We are the First Nation-State’

At the level of social groups, being ‘the first or oldest’ is something that grants emotional security. This belief possibly stems from individual psychologies in which ‘being first’ is the position that most satisfies the self or the ego. For this reason, even among well-established states worldwide, there is an occasional race to see who is ‘the first nation-state’ in the history. France is the first country with a bourgeois revolution that managed to control all the political mechanisms of the Old Regime and established a good number of later keys to power, so it is usually considered ‘the first state’ (Móstoles 2022a).

Not to be outdone, Spanish politicians began to say that Spain is the oldest nation in Europe together with France—and now claim that it is the oldest one in the world (Móstoles 2022b). But they merely captured the tradition of “royal lineages, bishops and politicians of various ideologies” that “mythologized the resistance of the Visigoths against the Arabs as the foundation” of the present-day Spain (Moreno 2021, 8–31). This mythification was done despite from the fact that the local Spaniards, currently referred to as ‘Hispanic-Romans’, supported the Arab conquerors against the previous Visigothic conquerors. In any case, the temptation to proclaim one’s own nation-state as the first in history is widespread. China, which has maintained fairly stable borders and structures since ancient times, is often a leading candidate (Yu and Xu 2016), but even the ‘young’ United States of America has been suggested, albeit informally, as “the oldest country in the world” (Stein 2017, 232).

In general, the figure of the nation state has its own ‘Mythology’ (White 2006). The social myth of being ‘the first and the oldest’ is just an M-16 in the hands of the structure of deep myths and extensive powers of the State. In other words, it is very small compared to tanks, planes and aircraft carriers.

The War Tank of Statist Myths: ‘Our State is a Nation-State’

The main myth of modern political states is that of a ‘nation-state’ with sameness between the state as a political structure and the nation as the ethnic culture or ‘people’ who live there. It is claimed that the state has only one nation which, of course, is the nation that holds the mechanisms of power. In fact, the main epistemic activity of political states can be understood as the amalgamation of efforts dedicated to presenting themselves as such a nation-state with resemblance or uniformity between the state and the nation of the state.

The Nation-State as an Ideal or a ‘Notion’-State

Undoubtedly, these efforts have paid off. The terminology between state and nation, despite being so basic not only for political science but also for everyday life, has become so intertwined that clarifying their difference is important even for scholars (Flint 2016). In basic terms, a nation-state is where “a relatively homogeneous people inhabits a sovereign state” or “[such] state containing one as opposed to several nationalities” (according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary).

In a broader view, it is a “territorially bounded sovereign polity—i.e., a sovereign state—that is ruled in the name of a community of citizens who identify themselves as a nation” (Feinstein 2023), so within said state resides a single group of people with shared characteristics in language, culture, history and identity, that is, a single nationality or ethnic-cultural group. There are other ways to operationalize the notion, for example, “a stage where a nation has found a common territorial base and is ruled together as one, under a formal government” (Arulpragasam 2012, 701–735), but the problem of such a ‘oneness’, core of the definition, remains.

In fact, there is no nation-state in the world. Or, more precisely, just one, Iceland. A first approach already makes it clear that “most, if not all nation-states are polyethnic” (Zijlmans 2014). Approximately 80% of nation-states in the world include four or more ethnic groups within their boundaries, 15%, three ethnic groups, 5%, two ethnic groups (TWF 2023), and only “Iceland and Japan may claim to a measure of convergence between state and nation” (Mallinson 2021, 128). However, Japan has the Ainu as its first settlers and still present, as different from the later Yamato who control the modern Japanese state.

Iceland was uninhabited when it was colonized by Scandinavians, who are the ones who established and now control its later state (without having suffered invasions or waves of immigrants that lead us to say that there is more than one nation living there). On the other hand, ‘four or more ethnic groups’ is still inaccurate; for example, the 2004 Afghan Constitution cited “Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Turkman, Baluch, Pachaie, Nuristani, Aymaq, Arab, Qirghiz, Qizilbash, Gujur, and Brahwui ethnicities” but in addition “Afghanistan has dozens of other small ethnic groups” (TWF 2023). Therefore, diversity is the norm and there is only one nation-state, Iceland.

Given the circumstances, the most accurate definition of ‘nation-state’ is “the idea of a homogenous nation governed by its own sovereign state —where each state contains one nation,” since it is “simply an ideal” (Mallinson 2021, 128, italics added). A nation-state is, rather, a notion-state. A state is something effectively material, but a nation-state is something epistemic, not really given, but sold to us as real.

The evidence that states generally maintain structures of education, information and law, and that each individual belongs to some state, nation, and identity, surely makes the power of nations with states over nations without a state the main source on epistemic injustices in the world. “This fact has remained in multiethnic societies as a latent source of interethnic tensions and at certain points in history produces open conflicts or major splits.” (Isajiw 1994, 4-5). Briefly explained:

[E]ven highly multiethnic states have been established and run by one dominant ethnic group … typically one ethnic group becomes the most active unit in nationality development and nation-state building … There has been a number of ways in which, historically, one ethnic group would emerge as dominant and others as subordinate. Whichever the historical route, … one ethnic group (sometimes two) would be perceived to be superior to others not only politically but also culturally and psychologically. [It] imparts its own cultural characteristics to all major national institutions. It is the elite of this ethnic group that forges and becomes the ‘mainstream’ of society. The other ethnic groups are expected to assimilate into the mainstream culture or alternatively become isolated and at best remain part of the total society as ‘exotic’ groups (Isajiw 1994, 4-5).

This harsh crystallization of the idea of the nation-state, as ‘latent source of tenions and conflicts’, leads to the varied literature that discusses nationalism, globalization, and the complexities of modern statehood, such as nations as imagined communities with diverse populations (Anderson 2006), ethnic diversity within nation-states (Brubaker 2004; Breuilly 1993) or the accommodation of cultural diversity within them (Kymlicka 1995; Parekh 2000). The current influences of globalization and transnational flows of people, capital, and information are also related to it, as they challenge the traditional notion of bounded nation-states (Sassen 2006) and lead to some deterritorialized identities (Appadurai 1996). The ultimate reason is that the nation-state is an epistemic construct of states, built with the concept of national identity but but from the ethnic group itself and almost always above other ethnic groups (Smith 1991), and polyethnicity still plays an important role in shaping the conflicts within states (Horowitz 2000).

Does the ‘Our State Is a Nation-State’ Myth Have any Success?

The nation-state may be an ideal and an epistemic construct, but how often does it crystallize as a shared identity for the different nations within its borders? For Mallinson (2021, 128), such ideal is “rendered impossible because the word ‘nation’, with its emotional content, clashes with the cold and rational state.” This seems to be in correspondence with the extensive literature on the subject. Let us see if it is true.

The usual situation is that some ethnic group or nation controls the powers of the state, and the effect on convivence can be the worst, a genocide, or the most peaceful possible, when national differences are forgotten. Yugoslavia would be a paradigmatic case of a state controlled by a nation, Serbia, which could not avoid national secessions (Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo) and disappeared. The United Kingdom (UK) is a state controlled by England that is quite successful in spreading a state identity. Among other things, the UK presents itself not as English but as ‘British’ and common, over the nations of Scotland and Wales and over a part of the Irish nation in Northern Ireland; still, it has been unable to evade the secessionist desires of those nations.

However, many states have succeeded in fully or nearly fully extending their state identity. In an extreme case are those who have achieved it by physical or epistemic elimination of the other nations within its borders. The United States is a vast political structure created primarily by Anglo immigrants over a multitude of native nations that were physically removed or confined on reservations. In the latter case, the ethnic groups survive, but without economic or epistemic defenses; that is, without being an ethnic group as such.

In the parallel case of Mexico, Spanish immigrants eliminated or displaced local ethnic groups, but to a lesser relative extent. State identity is widespread, but there is resistance to all its implications, such as those of Zapatismo. In any case, there is a great assumption that everyone is ‘Mexican’, despite being so in different ways. The defenders of the common identity are very active as with the recent assumption of a ‘Mexican genome’—where a genetic variation from the time of the conquest would characterize the Mexicans (heard in an informal conversation).

Among the countries that manage their state identity with less tension is Malaysia, a diversely multi-ethnic country in which the original ethnic group, despite not holding power mechanisms, seems to be respected and valued, although some probable tensions can be glimpsed on the horizon (Arulpragasam 2012). Many countries seem to have shape a comfortable state identity, like Kenia or Etiopia, despite some problems, like the later with Eritrea.

Some states have multiple languages, religions, or ethnic groups within them, with no one clearly dominant; however, the results of cohabitation are similar in the long term. In some case the state identity does not prosper and the state is divided, as in the case of Czechoslovakia. In other cases, it is maintained with tensions, as in the case of the common state identity of Belgium that has failed to make residents forget either the pro-independence nationalism in ‘Dutch’ Flanders or the regionalist nationalism in ‘French’ Wallonia. However, it may also be that the state identity satisfies the national identities. In the case of Switzerland, Swiss stateness comes to be assumed as a common identity superimposed on the national ones. People feel Swiss without problematic claims, even if they are culturally and linguistically different.

Those are representative cases, but what is actually the main trend? The literature and the media seem to indicate that the most common situation between nations or identities within a nation-state is one of conflict and serious tension. However, a worldwide scan may harbor surprises. Given 193 countries recognized as states by the UN—10 more states are without general international recognition, 10 more states lack general international recognition, and 40 minor territories are ‘dependent territories’ of foreign states—and roughly 6,000 nations (according to linguistic criteria), there would be approximately 5,800 ‘nations without a state’ within the states of such 193 ‘nations with a State.’ Consequently, if the literature and news suggested a realistic picture, around 4,000-5,000 nations, or at least around 3,000, would be in in conflict or tension. However, the reality is much less exaggerated.

Only about 250 are ‘nations without a state that claim their sovereignty’ with a strong or notable independence movement, such as the Kurds, Tibetans, Chechens, Basques, Quebecois or Mapuches (5%). Of these 250, some 70 are ‘stateless nations that claim or have claimed their sovereignty by armed means’ such as the Kurds, the Irish, the Corsicans or the Basques (1-2%). Within or outside this last group, about 12 are ‘stateless nations that have de facto sovereignty or are close to achieving it’ such as Somaliland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique and Reunion, etc.

There are some 250 nations where the majority of their members, or at least for their most conscious or even armed minorities, strongly feel the national identity over the others, and the struggle for popular sovereignty is on the go and full of enthusiasm and vigor. Parallel to them are about 4,500 ‘nations that are comfortable in the states of others’ that have not confronted the state with armed struggle, do not claim their sovereignty, may be comfortable in such states, and, in many cases, may not even have awareness of being a nation and having nationality rights as such (94.8%).

Briefly stated, the ideal of nation-state is not “rendered impossible” as Mallinson (2021, 128) puts it. The ‘emotional’ nation naturally clashes with the ‘rational’ state, indeed, but confrontations tend to resolve themselves and the nation-state becomes solvent in most cases. And what is the key? On the side of the powerful, social myths like ‘our state is the first nation-state’ or the ubiquitous myth that ‘our state is a nation-state’ are certainly not the cause of it, for sure, but rather the achievement of the state powers of education, information and law, for decades or centuries. This is what makes the different nations end up feeling a common state identity, just as national, cultural and linguistic identity is usually felt.

The M-16 may not have won any state’s war against its internal enemies, and possibly neither did the tanks; rather, the fact they were supported by aviation. Notwithstanding, in the end, after a few generations, the effect is that the oppressed forget that they were conquered by the M-16s, tanks and planes and feel safe with them and justify them as proper and necessary. As in the aphorism commonly attributed to Kwame Nkrumah: “The last stage of imperialism is when the minds of the colonized have been conquered.”

Let us see how such an epistemic victory was achieved in the history of states and nations.

❧ Please refer to Part II of “The Value of Shooting at a Plane with a Rifle: A Reply to Dennis Masaka.”

Author Information:

Xabier Renteria-Uriarte —, University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain — is a Ph.D. in Economics within a Philosophy program, and a Professor of World Economy. His research areas include non-Western epistemologies, social worldviews, social movements, sharing economy, and contemplative economics. He served as the Director of the School of Business Studies in Bilbao from 2009 to 2012, after being the Deputy Director from 1998 to 2009. He has been actively involved in social activism within various Basque organizations, currently serving in Euskal Sena Taldea and Biltzarre.


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