Over the past few years, politicians, particularly on the right, have made renewed attempts to promote patriotism and the placing of loyalty to a nation over other identities. From the Conservatives and UKIP in the UK to the Front National in France, many have tried to rally us once more in defence of our sovereign nation and national identity, which they feel is under threat from multiculturalism and globalisation. However, the very basis upon which these ideas stand – the nation itself – is far more temporal and artificial than you might imagine. In truth, the nation is an illusion, an intangible idea invented and promoted by elite interests and maintained and spread by the forces of modernisation.
What is the Nation?
Before we look at how the nation was invented we need to ask ourselves what is the nation? This is a question that is far more difficult to answer than it first appears. We all are familiar with the nation and yet few of us can truly express what it is in any meaningful way. Take the debate over what ‘Britishness’ is, for example. Politicians trip over themselves to tell you what Britain or being British means but when they try to explain what it is they often give a list of traits that can just as easily be applied to French, German or American people as to the British one. This is a hint to its invented nature.
Anglo-Irish historian and political theorist Benedict Anderson perhaps best described nations as “imagined communities”, imagined because the people in them will never know nor meet the vast majority of the community or nation they believe they belong to and thus it can only be an imagined entity. Typically, such imagined communities are formed around some kind of unifying feature – usually one common language, religion or historical experience.
They also typically incorporate some kind of national myth or mythology. For example, the US has the mythology surrounding American exceptionalism, manifest destiny and their conception of their country as a ‘land of the free’ whilst the British have Britannia, the New Jerusalem, British stoicism and Arthurian legends (to name but a few). These mythologies usually serve to galvanise a sense of national destiny and uniqueness that allows the patriot to feel more justified in his patriotism. For instance, if we look at British propaganda over the past few centuries we see a common trend in using national myths to portray Britain as this unconquerable isle, a defender of freedom – a sceptred isle no less. All nonsense, of course, since most countries often claim the same things just using different icons and myths.
A very common national myth is what I would call the ‘ancient ancestry’ myth,. This is the common idea that the present boundaries of your nation are its ‘natural’ frontiers, that this land has always been home to your nation and that you are descended from the ancient dwellers of this land. For example, British patriots might appeal to images of Boudicca as a symbol of Britain despite her culture being long dead and the British Isles having been invaded and settled by countless other peoples since then. In truth, we are all children of immigrants. DNA testing has revealed we all have immigrant ancestors at some point – none of us are ‘pure’.
It is worth pointing out at this stage that a nation is not necessarily the same as a nation state. A nation state is a sovereign state or government that claims to embody a particular nation, for example, the French Republic claims to represent the French nation whilst the USA claim to represent the American nation and so on. In short, all nation states are nations but not all nations are nation states. For example the Welsh, Scots or Kurds might all describe themselves as countries or nations, but none of them have their own state. Since some nations lack states to support them, you might be tempted to think that nations exist as a natural product of human social evolution; however, as I hope to explain, they aren’t – even unrepresented nations are invented.
A Brief History of the Nation:
The idea of the nation is quite a modern one. Although there are a few examples of proto-nations or nation-like entities in the ancient world, for the most part the idea of a nation is absent from most of ancient and medieval history. Often your identity would revolve around your religion, your culture and the local community you belonged to rather than a nation. During the era of feudalism, loyalty was always to your liege lord – be that your landlord if you were a serf, or the king if you were a nobleman. The idea of England or France was largely geographic and though occasional references to some larger tribal identity of the English might be made it was mostly of relevance only to the educated elite and not the general populace.
Whilst the Renaissance began to change things, development of distinct nations in Europe was, however, very piecemeal – with some areas advancing faster than others. Only from the late 18th century onwards do you see true nations as we would recognise them. The American and French revolutions and the ideologies that spawned them did much to advance the idea of the nation as the basic political division of Humanity with each nation having a distinct character.
Britain, as the vanguard of the Industrial Revolution that would soon sweep the world, was among the first to undergo a process of nation building. It had begun as early аs the reign of James I of England and VI of Scotland (1603-1625 for England 1567-1625 for Scotland respectively) who united the crowns of England and Scotland and made early attempts to force upon people the idea of British unity. The next two centuries saw the union between the two former enemy kingdoms persist, first under the Stuarts and then under the Hanoverians/Georgians. However, it was not an easy birth for the British nation. The government in Westminster used a combination of military force, economic incentives, and propaganda to convince the Scots that they were really British. In the end, it was mutual interest in making money from Britain’s emerging colonial empire that seemed to keep the two together. However, the distinction between British and English has always been a blurry one and the Scots have persisted in feeling apart from those south of the border.
Unmasking the Inventor
It is in the emergence of Great Britain that we begin to see the face of the inventor of the nation; the political elite. The nation is inherently an elite project aimed at motivating and manipulating the masses into uniting behind them. In established nations this elite is usually the ruling party or government who use the idea that they represent your ‘nation’ to legitimise their rule and encourage support for their platform. In unrepresented nations, this elite are the educated in society who recognise that their community or culture is being suppressed and seek to galvanise their fellow countrymen against the oppressor.
In the early 19th century, nationalists – in this context people who seek to create nations – were often intellectual liberals rather than conservatives. With the exception of established nations like Britain or the USA, in most countries 19th century conservatives were initially distrustful of the nation. They preferred old allegiances like the King or the Pope. Instead, the early pioneers of the nation were European intellectuals and liberal politicians who sought to modernise their country and build a capitalist economy. Nation building was seen as the hallmark of modernity, a force to bind people together eroding the old ties of feudalism, sweeping them away and replacing them with a more centralised, industrialised nation state.
Eventually, conservatives would adopt the idea of the nation as well as recognising its power to motivate people into obedience. In divided nations like Germany or Italy, it was useful in inspiring loyalty from citizens of other realms. For instance, the Prussian aristocratic elite got fully behind German nationalism after they realised it legitimised their imperial ambitions to conquer or ‘unite’ all of Germany. Instead of conquerors they were now national liberators or founders. A similar situation prevailed in Italy where a conservative aristocracy and monarchy in Sardinia-Piedmont took advantage of popular nationalist activity under Garibaldi (a modernising liberal) to legitimise their takeover of the new Italian state.
Meanwhile, in the great archaic medieval relics of the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires who, along with Russia, dominated Eastern Europe, nationalism became the great bane of these Empires. For these were realms made up of very different cultures with sharp differences in language, religion and history. As the 19th century progressed, Liberals and Conservatives in these countries became national liberators as they wielded the tool of the nation to liberate their cultural kin from oppression at the hands of the Ottomans or Habsburgs. Often these uprisings focused around a group of liberal intellectuals who not only wanted freedom from foreign rule but also sought to modernise their realm in imitation of the USA or Britain. Unfortunately, whilst most succeeded in freeing their nations, eventually these nationalist uprisings in the East proved alarming to the great powers of the time (Britain, France, Prussia/Germany, Russia) due to their revolutionary liberal character and thus they quickly intervened to impose conservative foreign monarchies upon these newly freed nations. Hence why the former royal family of Greece is actually of mixed Danish-German ancestry and the former royal family of Romania is German.
Nation building is a multi-step process involving the building and inventing of a common identity based around culture, language or history, often at the expense of local identities and cultures. Linguistic and cultural homogeneity were emphasised through government policies. For example, in many industrialised nation states in the latter part of the 19th century policies were implemented aimed at suppressing local languages and dialects in favour of a central standardised national language. This was often done through education with children sometimes punished for using the language of their community and encouraged to speak or write only in the prescribed form. In Belgium, for example, the Flemish language long suffered suppression of this nature at the hands of the French speaking elite in Brussels who sought to make Belgium a solely French speaking nation. In Russia, attempts were made to suppress indigenous Finnish, Siberian and Baltic cultures and languages. In France one saw suppression of the Breton and Occitan languages of Brittany and Southern France. And in the United States a cultural genocide was inflicted upon the Native American peoples as governments there tried to ‘civilise’ them by stealing their children and forcing them to speak English and adopt Western culture and religion. All this served, with varying success, to enforce homogeneity upon the people, where once was diversity, the nation builders sought uniformity – one nation one people.
The Future of the Nation
We can see here how the nation as we know it has been from the beginning a tool used by elite groups to further their interests either for liberal ends or for conservative ones. Whilst the nation served to help create our modern world and was originally a liberal project, its tendency to enforce uniformity and divide people up would lead to catastrophe in the first half of the 20th century as Europe tore itself apart to prove the superiority of one nation over the others.
It is my firm belief that the time of nations is coming to an end and the events of the last year have not shaken that belief. Two hundred years ago, the advent of new technology heralded the age of the nation. Suddenly it was possible for masses of people to move around and communicate as they never had before. This has happened again with the advent of modern air travel and the Internet and people are being connected globally in a way never before seen in the history of our species. It is now possible for me to speak to people on the other side of the world as if they were in the same room. Events in far off lands are beamed into my home by the Internet and TV allowing me to form an empathic connection to them and their struggles meaning that suddenly I care about events happening to people I will never meet in lands I have never visited who speak languages I cannot understand. We live in a globalised world and that is only going to continue as the digital revolution proceeds. The old ideas of nations are rapidly becoming obsolete and antiquated in this environment. Why should I care only for my nation when I can see and hear the voices of those all over the world?
We are all citizens of the world now no matter what Theresa May thinks. If you needed more proof then just look to the protesters marching against Donald Trump in major cities all over the world. These are not just Americans protesting against their national government, these are global citizens of every country rejecting his ideology of hate and division. The 21st century is the century of the global citizen, of one world, one human race.
Michael is an aspiring writer and blogger based in Leeds UK. He writes on history, politics, religion, science and other topics