Monday, July 17, 2006

Imagined Communities

Once again, in the light of the unravelling crisis in the Middle East, serious doubts about the origins, the meaning and the usefulness of Nationalism, have crept up on me. I've understood for quite a long time that Nationalism and their propagandistic narratives are largely fabricated and have only a limited foundation in true historical roots. These narratives do not serve the purpose of enlightening the citizens of a given Nation State (the latter being a very recent phenomenon in mankind's collective history) but most often, the actual purpose [of Nationalism] is rather the opposite.

Here's an excerpt from a book by
Benedict Anderson, professor emeritus of International Studies at Cornell University, called "Imagined Communities".

"In an anthropological spirit, then, I propose the following definition of the nation: it is an imagined political community - - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

"It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion. Renan referred to this imagining in his suavely back-handed way when he wrote that 'Or l’essence d'une nation est que tons les individus aient beaucoup de choses en commun, et aussi que tous aient oublié bien des choses.” [So the essence of a nation is that while its individuals have many things in common, all have also forgotton a lot of things - my translation] With a certain ferocity Gellner makes a comparable point when he rules that 'Nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations where they do not exist.' The drawback to this formulation, however, is that Gellner is so anxious to show that nationalism masquerades under false pretences that he assimilates 'invention' to 'fabrication' and 'falsity', rather than to 'imagining' and 'creation'. In this way he implies that 'true' communities exist which can be advantageously juxtaposed to nations. In fact, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact (and perhaps even these) are imagined. Communities are to be distinguished, not by their falsity/genuineness, but by the style in which they are imagined. Javanese villagers have always known that they are connected to people they have never seen, but these ties were once imagined particularistically-as indefinitely stretchable nets of kinship and clientship. Until quite recently, the Javanese language had no word meaning the abstraction 'society.' We may today think of the French aristocracy of the ancien régime as a class; but surely it was imagined this way only very late. To the question 'Who is the ‘Comte de X?’ the normal answer would have been, not 'a member of the aristocracy,' but 'the lord of X, 'the uncle of the Baronne de Y,'or 'a client of the Duc de Z.'

"The nation is imagined as limited because even the largest of them encompassing perhaps a billion living human beings, has finite, if elastic boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind. The most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the members of the human race will join their nation in the way that it was possible, in certain epochs, for, say, Christians to dream of a wholly Christian planet.

"It is imagined as sovereign because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destorying the legitamcy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm. Coming to maturity at a stage of human history when even the most devout adherents of any universal religion were inescapably confronted with the living pluralism of such religions, and the allomorphism between each faith's ontological claims and territorial stretch, nations dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so. The gage and emblem of this freedom is the sovereign state.

"Finally, it is imagined as a community, because, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. [my emphasis]

"These deaths bring us abruptly face to face with the central problem posed by nationalism: what makes the shrunken imaginings of recent history (scarcely more than two centuries) generate such colossal sacrifices? I believe that the beginnings of an answer lie in the cultural roots of nationalism."


At 12:59 AM, Anonymous David Zarnett said...

hey gert,

i'm happy I can post on your blog again. I have just posted a piece on hezbollah that I dont think you will agree with but I await a thoughtful response.

In regards to Anderson's book, I have only read excerpts. Its fascinating and probably one of the most dominant scholarly works on nationalism. A question I have always wondered, and maybe something I hope to do some research on in the future, is whether there was another political option other than natonalism that was available to communities living under foreign imperial rule. Nationalism seems like an ideal fit in a post-empire context. Socialism, as Anderson points out, is far to abstract to gain mass appeal. So I think in the end Anderson's piece shows that nationalism is probably with us to stay. We just need a way to make it more in tune with liberal democracy.

At 6:40 AM, Blogger J.UL1R4 said...

You sound disappointed David.

"nationalism is probably with us to stay"

Does that bother you ?

Gert, I would hazard a guess that you are aiming this at Israel, and while I'm not familiar with the book this came from, I get the impression (at least from the article you posted) that it is offering a critique of what we call nationalism.

It is true that a lot of 'nation-states' are artificial in the sense they were created for reasons essentially distinct from (a prior) will or aspirations or shared experiences of existing populations (if such things can be quantified) of those regions they pertained to, examples would be those created by the British Empire with it's own self interests in mind. But not always, America being the best example of an escape from empire.

There is another component to the nation state which gets somewhat forgotten in these kind of debates though, that is the 'state' bit, and if we are to tolerate a state at all, presumably we have to be in agreement (broadly) with it. But why should we be in more agreement with some other kind of arrangement, that doesn't reflect a nation and that is yet more removed from location, history, culture and tradition ? The tolerance toward any system or metaphor, including the state is an enormous gift we provide, and it is, if not considerably more 'artificial' than the 'nation' bit. Or to put it another way the artificiality of a nation state is no more so than it's taxes or laws.

To imply the nation-state in principle (which is the impression the very small segment you posted gives and without seeing the rest of the book) is any more artificial an arrangement than anything else is I think deliberately misleading.

It's not the 'nation state' or an (arguably resulting) sense of nationalism, which the article implies has it's own velocity and intelligence that is creating wars anymore than it's the 'media' that 'make people read newspapers'.

It's people abusing the nation state, and a reluctance to confront that that is the problem. Nationalism or rather its abuse becomes a means to end, not the end itself. I would say that describes America at the moment, a country under a slow coup.

Furthermore, what some have tried to do and still do is fraudulently paint extreme forms of war making nationalism with a distinctly racial component as an inevitable product of the nation state, of any nation state and that is not correct.

Now I'd like to mention the UK, where the Telegraph recently noted the nation is being swamped with unprecedented numbers of immigrants (and it's not illegal immigrants that are the issue here) and when society is melted down by the likes of Blair and Levy and 'former' communists like John Reid and Charles Clarke into a terrible miserable police state/Orwellian soup where everyone is wrapped in horrendous social tyranny, where the rule of law is melting down and where there is no longer anything to aspire to, where the state sets no example, nationalism is replaced with the misery of international socialism, manifested more as a 'socially responsible fascism'. All the while you are told the nation state is bad and old fashioned and only giving up more power to Brussels will save you.

This is when the state fails. This is not to do with an inherent flaw in the concept of nation states, it is do with the state naturally becoming a misdirected monstrosity under very very bad people.

And I'm sorry to say it's exactly this kind of ideology that is threatening everybody now. People are being pushed more and more into globalism, and some of the arguments of those hacking away at nationalism, or rather using extreme nationalism, or people who have abused patriotism/nationalism as a means to attack the concept of the nation state are overall rather specious to put it politely and must be viewed with great skepticism as to why they are being proposed.

The same thing happened after WWII and people are now being prepared for WWIII some speculate by Israel drawing the US into an extended conflict in the region. Newt Gingrich is talking up the third world war, and America is being prepared for a draft. There's a lengthy article about that on Rolling Stone's website.

The truth is America has been sold a crock of shit by radical ideologues in the form of the Clash of Civilizations. As a result America is in some considerable danger and so are we.

This is the abuse of nationalism not nationalism itself, where an interest in the preservation (I would call nationalism) of everything good and noble and creative and wonderful of a nation (patriotism) is twisted through cruelly spun political myths, where people's pride in the acheivements of a nation and expectations of continuity are dangerously twisted into flag waving tyranny and fear and then along will come the same people who gave you those wars telling you nationalism is bad, and 'nationalism made the wars happen'

But of course, to say nationalism in inherently bad is a fraudulent sweeping coagulation, wrongly made by, for want of a more satisfactory term, 'the far academic left', or those with an unhealthy political/religous/financial interest in the concept of a global government.

It's just nonsense and America has made itself a glowing example of a nation state, but it is that quality which is a barrier to the kind of empire, world reshaping and domestic tyranny set out in documents like Rebuilding America's Defenses.

There is also a more specific flaw here anyway: nationalism has been given the tarnish of racial nationalism and wars waged by dictators on behalf of financial cabals in the name of nationalism, so people are effectively being deprived of a neutral specific term to describe the support of a nation state.

Perhaps it's not socialism that is 'too vague' but that people don't want to live as humiliated slaves in a Soviet style regime, being starved to death and murdered for a giggling elite's perception of a greater good. Nationalism can and should provide an antidote to such horror.

Perhaps also, this is why it was the only 'political option'. The only flaw from my point of view of a nation state is that people are fed (and mislead) on external dangers on it very well. But perhaps because of that conditioning they don't see internal attacks on it at all, until it is too late, as luminously illustrated by what has happened in both the USA and UK which may be heading towards enormous disaster. Of course, many don't want to see it because it's just too awful, but I'm afraid to say that is really where we are today and it's something we have to confront.

Again, I don't know the conclusions of this book, but the' propogandist narrative' mentioned in the article has echoes of a trend of presenting people with false Eutopias, telling them their nation state is faulty and bad and old fashioned and that global goverment will save them from wars, poverty and environmental catastrophe, but the most serious catastrophe will be if people are poisoned by this. This is one reason why people kill and die for a 'nation state', as they may have nothing to loose by doing so in the face of horrendous oncoming tyranny and destruction. However when that oncoming tyranny and destruction is coming from within the nation state itself and the nation is being misled into a concept of a foreign enemy it is a lot harder to confront.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger Gert said...

David and Jultra:

My opinion of Nationalism is not particularly "idealistic".

Nationalism is definitely here to stay but its excesses are built in to the concept of Nationalism itself.

Reliant on narratives and ideology that need to be embellished, airbrushed and often entirely invented leaves the system wide open to abuse, not in the least by those who benefit most from the Nation State. Those who benefit the most are never ordinary citizens, who remain forever mere pawns in a game over which they haven't got the slightest control. In that respect even the lofty ideals of Democracy are easily perverted for the benefit of the "happy few".

The pawns may enjoy some of the benefits the Nation State has to offer (such as social welfare) but have no choice but to contribute to a system in which their input is fairly minimal.


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