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What is Nationalism?

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Nationalism was first used in print in 1789 by the anti-Jacobin French priest Augustin Barruel and since then there has been no term as widely and intensely debated in the various discourses as ‘nationalism’ right from the days of Hegel, Mazzini and Renan down to Gellner, smith and Anderson. The term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena:

  1. The attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity
  2. The actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (sustain) self-determination.

The first attitude raises questions about the concept of a nation (national identity), which is often defined in terms of common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties, and specifically about whether an individual’s membership in a nation should be regarded as non-voluntary or voluntary while the action raises questions about whether self-determination must be understood as involving having full statehood with complete authority over domestic and international affairs, or whether something less is required. It is traditional, therefore, to distinguish nations from states — whereas a nation often consists of an ethnic or cultural community, a state is a political entity with a high degree of sovereignty. While many states are nations in some sense, there are many nations which are not fully sovereign states. As an example, the Native American Iroquois constitute a nation but not a state, since they do not possess the requisite political authority over their internal or external affairs. If the members of the Iroquois nation were to strive to form a sovereign state in the effort to preserve their identity as a people, they would be exhibiting a state-focused nationalism.

In the last decade the focus of the debate about nationalism has shifted towards issues in international justice, probably in response to changes on the international scene: bloody nationalist wars such as those in the former Yugoslavia have become less conspicuous, whereas the issues of terrorism, of the “clash of civilizations” and of hegemony in the international order have come to occupy public attention. One important link with earlier debates is provided by the contrast between views of international justice based on the predominance of sovereign nation-states and more cosmopolitan views that insist upon limiting national sovereignty or even envisage its disappearance. Another new focus for philosophers is provided by issues of territory and territorial rights, which connect the topic of nation-states (or, “the nation state”) with questions about boundaries, migration, resource rights and vital ecological matters.

Smith states that there are two broad kinds of nationalism, civic and ethnic (1991). The civic variation is based around principles of political community and common values. An example of this could the United States, which is based around such principles but is open to others to become part of the nation if they agree to accept ‘Americanism’. Whereas the focus of the ethnic variety is on blood ties, common history and membership to such nations is more exclusively defined. Examples of this could be the countries of the former Yugoslavia, with their emphasis on ethnicity as acceptance into the nation. According to Brass (1979), nationalism is the process by which elites and counter-elites within ethnic groups select aspects of the group’s culture, attach new value and meaning to them, and use them as symbols to mobilize the group, to defend its interests, and to compete with other groups.

Benedict Anderson, one of the foremost proponents of the constructivist view of nationalism, defines the nation as a fabrication, a bond between people that did not actually exist prior to its own recognition. He states that, “It is an imagined community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”. Anderson believes that the nation is imagined because members of this nation don’t know most of their compatriots but still have a communal image; it is built based on recognition of commonality, not the commonality itself. “It is an imagined community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign” Benedict Anderson believes that both primordialist thinking and Marxist constructivist philosophy cannot endure in the face of the fundamental paradoxes of defining the nation, which he believes to be the objectivity of historical treatment versus subjective antiquity for nationalists and jingoists, the existence of formal universality among all nations versus the uniqueness of each nation’s manifestation, and the political power of a nation versus its philosophical poverty. For Anderson, primordialist thinking regarding the nation fails to stand up to the objectivity of historical treatment while Marxist thinking regarding the conception of the nation doesn’t take into account the philosophical poverty of the nation.

Ernest Gellner put forth the idea that the nation is only a socially conceived “construct,” an artificially created entity with the possibility of continued existence contingent upon the continuation of the perpetuation of the concept by the nation’s elites. He believes that nations and nationalism are not somehow revealed by historical events, but rather that they are fabricated concepts. He states that, A mere category of persons (say, occupants of a given territory, or speakers of a given language, for example) becomes a nation if and when the members of the category firmly recognize certain mutual rights and duties to each other in virtue of their shared membership of it. It is their recognition of each other as fellows of this kind which turns them into a nation, and not the other shared attributes, whatever they might be, which separate that category from non- members.

To Gellner, nationalism comes from the fabrication of recognition, not any shared pre-existing characteristics. This is in direct conflict with the pre-constructivist idea that nations already existed before their more tangible manifestation. Gellner is a postmodern thinker, preferring an explanation that is a result of self-determination, as opposed to a set and unchanging identity. While Gellner is at odds with the idea of the pre-existing nations of the primordial school of thought, his theories are in no way wholly agreeable to traditional constructivist thought regarding nationalism. Thong chai Winichakul subscribes to the constructivist philosophy of the nation set forth by Anderson and Gellner, that there is nothing inherent or pre-existing about the nation. He agrees with the idea of the nation as an imagined community, one defined by its recognition of itself and not any tangible bond.7 Thong chai’s contribution to the field of nationalism academia lies in his interpretation of the nation through what he terms the “geo-body,” the delineation and formation of a nation’s territory.

Thong chai’s discourse on the falseness of both the nation and its territory exists in a blatantly anti-nationalist and anti-jingoist historical context. As a student, Thong chai was imprisoned by Thai nationalist forces in a paramilitary assault on a student protest.10 His conception of the nation as a result is actually more anti-primordialist than traditional constructivism as it has the added element of an artifice an unreal territory and geography. His interpretation of nationalism is affected by the Thai history of nationalism and his experiences as a dissenter. Eric Hobsbawm was a proponent of a distinctly Marxist, anti-primordial view of the nation. He wrote that “any sufficiently large body of people, whose members regard themselves as members of a ‘nation’, will be treated as such.” 11 This is a deeply constructivist view of nationalism and puts forth the idea that pre-existing and homogenous characteristics of a people group in no way define a nation; rather, it is the recognition of a bond, a fabrication and an artifice entity, that legitimizes the nation. He rejects the idea that nations exist because of any existing bond between peoples. He states that, Nations as a natural, God-given way of classifying men, as an inherent … political destiny, are a myth; nationalism, which sometimes takes preexisting cultures and turns them into nations, sometimes invents them, and often obliterates pre-existing cultures: that is a reality.

Benedict Anderson changed the way the debate between primordialism and constructivism was framed by introducing his three paradoxes of nation defining and then navigating those paradoxes with his notion of an imagined, limited, and sovereign community. Gellner introduced a new type of constructivist theory by upholding the inherently artificial nature of the nation and the creation of the nation by recognition and not existing commonality, while still asserting the legitimacy and even necessity of the nation in the modern industrial world. Thong chai expanded the idea of artificiality as a component of the nation by applying it to what is arguably the most tangible aspect of the nation, its borders and territory, driving the debate even further away from the conservative primordial explanation. Hobsbawm attempted to rework methodological practices of constructivist academics by viewing nationhood from the bottom-up and redefining the nation as a concept lacking in uniformity throughout the classes. These academics have helped to grow the constructivist school of thought from blanketed liberal reactions in response to rationalized jingoism to an expansion on the thinking surrounding what constitutes a nation, how a nation is formed, and what that means in the context of modern nation-states.

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