The Dangerous Myth of Nations

In 2019, we are living in the age of the nation, or so it seems. We can see a very particular breed of populist nationalism almost everywhere we look—think of Erdoğan in Turkey, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, Maduro in Venezuela, Modi in India, Orbán in Hungary, Trump in the US, Xi in China, Putin in Russia, and so on. Always the same bluster and bravado, the same talk of restoring people to their former glory. But certain observers have suggested that first impressions may be misleading. These observers have seen, in all the noise and drama, the death throes of the nation. The essayist Rana Dasgupta argues that “the current appeal of machismo as political style, the wall-building and xenophobia, the mythology and race theory, the fantastical promises of national restoration—these are not cures, but symptoms.” The same thing is happening in every country because “all countries are today embedded in the same system, which subjects them all to the same pressures: and it is these that are squeezing and warping political life everywhere.” What we are now seeing is the nation’s “inability to withstand countervailing 21st-century forces, and its calamitous loss of influence over human circumstance.”

Imagined Communities

Whether this is true or not, the demise of the nation is something that we should actively encourage. The national identities that dominate our political discourse are collective fantasies: wind and smoke—or, in a memorable phrase coined by historian Benedict Anderson, “the shrunken imaginings of recent history.” The political arrangement that we call the nation-state system was launched at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, and the philosophical underpinnings of the political system are not much older. It is founded on the belief that our world is divided into fundamental units of people—nations—which is a dangerous mistake. Anderson famously explores the roots of this mistake in his book Imagined Communities, and finds them in early capitalism. Sixteenth-century Europe contained so many different Frenches and Englishes and Germans that mass communication in any particular region was impossible. Books were printed in archaic languages like Latin, which only made sense to the elite. But entrepreneurs reasoned that, if widespread comprehension were possible, they stood to make an enormous profit, so they began publishing books and newspapers in print languages that collected together related vernaculars. These new print languages helped to create what Anderson describes as “monoglot mass reading publics.” Readers slowly became aware of the existence of imagined communities—unseen millions who spoke the same language as them—and the nation was born.

However, this can’t be the whole story. Anderson’s own examples make it clear that not all nations are connected by language. Take Indonesia: “the peoples on the eastern coast of Sumatra are not only physically close, across the narrow straits of Malacca, to the populations of the western littoral of the Malay peninsula, but they are ethnically related, understand each other’s speech, have a common religion, and so forth. These same Sumatrans share neither mother tongue, ethnicity, nor religion with the Ambonese, located on islands thousands of miles away to the east. Yet … they have come to understand the Ambonese as fellow Indonesians, the Malays as foreigners.” Anderson was right to locate the emergence of the nation in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, but wrong about the crucial connecting factor. So if it’s not language that makes a nation a nation, what is it? It can’t be politics, because the political reality of the nation-state system is really just the codification of an idea that already existed—it is only a construct built on a foundation. What is that foundation?

The Nation as History

Some say it’s history. These people think of nations as continuous entities stretching all the way back through the ages. They imagine the unfurling of an epic shared history, which connects people across time, linking the citizens of a twenty-first century nation-state to individuals living in the ancient world. China is often described in these terms—we are always hearing about the many Chinese dynasties, the thousands of years of Chinese history. Today’s Communist Party never seems to shut up about it. Closer examination, however, reveals a different picture. These supposedly Chinese empires were formed by whoever took power, regardless of where they came from. The Yuan was founded by Kublai Khan’s feared Mongol hordes in the thirteenth century, while the Qing was founded by the Manchu clan Aisin Gioro in the seventeenth century. Each empire was distinct, and the borders changed whenever the empire changed. In 1000 CE, China was actually Song. In 1500 CE, China was actually Ming—a different entity to Song by any measure—a different nation. Historians maintained a tradition of careful record-keeping throughout the millennia, and this can create the illusion of a continuous China (an illusion bolstered by a degree of linguistic continuity). But, as far as these ancient historians were concerned, they were recording the history of the world, not of a single country. There was no name for China, and there was no idea in anyone’s mind that such a thing existed.

In the twentieth century, the last of the dynasties came to an end, and it was decided that a national identity was needed to catch up with the rest of the world. The name Zhongguo (or China) was clumsily attached to the long history of many different empires with different identities and borderlines. And today, one hundred years on, that old border problem is still unresolved. The Communist Party claims that Taiwan and Tibet are actually Chinese provinces, and Chinese citizens are taught as much in school, as if it were a universally acknowledged fact. But most people living in Taiwan and Tibet have a very different view of things. So it seems that, after all this time, we still cannot agree on who is Chinese and who is not, and we still cannot agree on where China begins and where it ends. Clearly, to believe that China exists in any meaningful sense is to be sorely mistaken.

The Nation as Geography

Others will argue that geography is the deciding factor. This does not bear scrutiny either. Historian Fernand Braudel has described India, for instance, as “an amalgam of areas that have never formed a single whole.” Indian history consists of a long list of separate and often unrelated dynasties, kingdoms, principalities and sultanates, rising and falling in a variety of locations on the subcontinent. The name India has described many different things—sometimes it was just a small collection of cities and villages clustered around the upper Indus basin, but sometimes it spread as far east and south as modern-day Burma, and contained within its borders great Bactrian empires sprawling up into modern-day Afghanistan. After 1858, the British Raj ruled over the closest thing there has ever been to a unified Indian subcontinent, but this lasted less than a hundred years, until Partition. Of course Indian nationalists now claim a 5000-year history, but in reality this is the history of a large number of geographically distinct entities.

The history of borders is usually just the history of military invasion and land acquisition. Any claim that a group has the right to eternally govern a territory must be based on the assumption that there was a moment of primary acquisition—a particular invasion or migration or political absorption that permanently decided the rightful owners of the land. Any subsequent invasions or migrations have to be disregarded. This is absurd: no impartial judgement can really be made about primary acquisition, so land just ends up being ruled by the greatest power.

The Nation as Biology

Some people think that nations began as ethnic groups and can therefore be thought of as biological realities, but if we try to pursue this logic we quickly run into problems. A significant proportion of the people now living in England and thinking of themselves as English are in fact genetically descended from Germanic tribes, who invaded the British Isles in the fifth century CE. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it so scathingly, the English invaded Britain and caused it to become England. Of course, most nationalists in the UK today would hardly welcome the idea that to be English is to be Germanic, considering the recent historical rivalry between England and Germany. But if we delve deep enough into the murky depths of our collective history, we will keep finding these inconvenient truths.

This is because humans don’t stay still: they move around. They invade and displace each other, and they spread their seed wherever they go. As a result, genetic ancestry is hopelessly confused. Today, you can send off your saliva and have your DNA processed in a lab, and, when you get your results, you can excitedly announce on Facebook that you are 25% English, 10% French, and so on. But the tests only show where some of your ancestors lived at one particular point in the distant past. They capture a snapshot of a single brief moment in the immense and complicated history of human migration and miscegenation—a moment that is only significant because we happen to have reference databases for that moment and not for all the countless other moments. And so all we can really do with current technology is tell an individual that they have a genetic connection to some of the people living in Western Europe or some of the people living in the Americas at a random point in the past, etc. We can’t get any more specific than that.

The Molecular and Cultural Evolution page of the University College London website explains that “testing companies will often assign national labels to genetic clusters, whereas gene variance frequencies tend to change smoothly across borders. Thus, French people may be assigned a large percentage of ‘British’ ancestry. Normandy and Kent are genetically similar, as you would expect from history and geography, so it is not easy to distinguish English from French based on DNA alone.” It seems to me that it is even less easy to distinguish not easy from impossible. Ultimately, to describe someone as West European or Native American is a drastic over-simplification—a wild stab in the dark based on minimal data. But to describe a person as British or French is to move out of the arena of science altogether, and into the realm of fantasy.

As we saw with the Indonesian example, these national fantasies will often cut right across existing ethnic boundary lines. Nigeria was dreamed up by the British Empire, who merged the various ethnic groups living in the vicinity of the Niger river and classified them as two imperial protectorates. These protectorates were then combined, at which point the Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Edo and many other diverse people groups learned, to their surprise, that they were all now Nigerian. These cynical origins were quickly forgotten, of course, and now Nigerian nationalists feel a deep connection to an imperial lie from recent history.

The Problem with Illusions

So nations are not connected by language, history, geography or biology, but they do have one consistent element: shared belief. You might think that this is enough. If members of these artificial groups have invested emotionally in their identities, then perhaps the emotional investment gives substance to the identities. Anderson is at pains to point out that his use of the word imagined in the term imagined community refers only to the phenomenon by which “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.” To be imaginary in this sense, he argues, is not to be false. He is wrong—it’s absolutely crucial for us to understand that these imagined communities are false: they are imagined in the negative sense of the word, in the sense that they are a misrepresentation of the real world. These groups have been thrown together, they are constantly subject to change, and because of this their impact is entirely destructive.

As willing members of these imagined communities, we subject ourselves to the idle whims of emperors and aristocrats and their modern-day equivalents. We make competitors and enemies out of people who are really no different from us, and we fight and die in pointless wars, for empty causes. There is something slavish—almost masochistic—in our meek acceptance of the identities handed down to us by authority figures. “We have made Italy,” said the politician Massimo d’Azeglio at the first meeting of the parliament of the newly-formed Italian kingdom, “now we have to make Italians.” That cynicism lies just beneath the surface of all national identities, and it completely undermines any legitimacy we might have given the identity via our emotional investment.

In his 2016 documentary Before the Flood, actor Leonardo DiCaprio sits down to talk about fossil fuel consumption with Sunita Narain from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. Their conversation provides a remarkable snapshot of the difficulties national identity presents for the solution of a global crisis like man-made climate change. “If you created the problem in the past, we will create it in the future,” Narain tells DiCaprio. “I would have really liked the US to move towards solar, but you haven’t.” DiCaprio agrees: “We have to practise what we preach.” She keeps haranguing him: “I’m sorry to say this, I know you’re an American … but your consumption is going to really put a hole in the planet … We are doing more investment in solar today, China is doing much more investment in solar today, than the US is … You are a fossil-addicted country.” Such conversations are close to useless, because of this chronic ability to get beyond you and we. Dialogue is completely obstructed by the weeds and thorns of national identity. Even when people are genuinely looking for a solution to a shared problem, they can’t swallow their pride or stop pointlessly apportioning blame. This attitude will be fatal in a world threatened by global problems requiring global solutions.

I recently had a heated conversation with a (British) guy who was loudly insisting that Western governments have always been the most tyrannical in the world. When he began praising the Chinese Communist Party, I felt the need to protest. I began listing the various outrages against Chinese citizens committed by leaders from Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping, but he wasn’t interested. Instead he wanted to know what gave us the right to criticise them. This man had stated earlier that he believed very strongly in the concept of individual sovereignty, and I agreed with him, but when the subject turned to China he suddenly seemed far more interested in national sovereignty. His beloved individual sovereignty didn’t apply to individuals living on the other side of the world. This is just one of the traps into which we are led by our belief in the existence of nations. Our moral sense is drastically—perhaps unnaturally—restricted: we stop caring about the plight of human beings who belong to a different imagined community, despite the fact that these human beings are fundamentally the same as us.

The Legacy of the Nation

Our belief in national identity is dangerous. Nation-forming has necessitated either the assimilation or exclusion, often by force, of those outside arbitrary boundaries. It has spelled disaster for many of the minorities living within the new boundaries, as we saw with the rise of anti-Semitism among the nations formed from the dissolved Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. The same prejudice had existed before the arrival of the imperialists, but it had been effectively suppressed during the days of empire. Once these nations gained their independence, the old ugliness rose to the surface again. We saw the same thing after World War II with the anti-Chinese sentiment among nations in South-East Asia, the anti-Indian sentiment among nations in East Africa, and the anti-Lebanese sentiment among nations in West Africa, and we saw it later in the twentieth century with the ethnic violence in territories that had formerly been part of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia.

Nationalism was one of the root causes of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans during the twentieth century, and one of the root causes of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany. In Eastern Europe over recent decades, it has been responsible for obstructing the rule of law, free market economics and the rise of liberalism and democracy. Today, in this crowded interconnected twenty-first century in which we have all become immediate neighbours, it presents a bigger threat than ever before. For as long as we have the illusion of nations, we will have the nightmare of nationalism. If we want peace and progress, we have to banish the illusion.

This essay was partly adapted from a book in progress.

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18 comments

  1. Seemingly left out is religion’s contribution to wiping out nations and causing indigenous people to become extinct.

    Religious beliefs are the ultimate illusion housed in each nation.

  2. There is a fundamental problem in the modernist argument, and that is that even while it is true that nations are imagined communities, and that at the beginning of the heyday of nationalism there were many Englishes and Frenches, none the less people employed nationalistic language throughout especially in times of war and peril. The ancient Romans and Greeks thought of themselves in nationalistic terms, and indeed if you wanted to become a Roman, you had to do as the Romans did. It also speaks to the naturalness of such in-group thinking that the process of creating a clearer national imagination was such a roaring success in terms of getting people to think in terms of nations. Nations are malleable and changeable, but that does not mean that nations are then non-existant. As @Steve K points out in this thread, (almost) no concept can be defined with clear borders, and as such all concepts are Wittgenstein’s family resemblance concepts.

    The academic “regressives” or what ever, keep using this argument of the nonclearness of concepts to attack subjects convenient to their agenda, but keep skimping over other concepts that are equally as fuzzy when convenient. Such is the case with things like “cultural appropriation”. You can use the same argument against the concept of “culture” as you use against the concept of “nation” to render appropriating “culture” to be a meaningless accusation, because what “culture” is, is just as fuzzy as what a “nation” is. You can do the same thing on concepts as varied as “species” or “bread” too.

    Another problem I have with modernists such as Gellner is that they overemphesize the nation as a product of the elites. The rise of nationalism coencides with rise of democracy, which was the liberation of “the people” from under the the more multicultural elites. The base from which Enlightenment philosophers saw such as Locke saw political power rising out of was the “people”. In the wake of the French revolution, the “people” were the “French”.

  3. Conservatives assure us – assure us! – that they love diversity (as long as there’s a fence in the way), and that transnational solidarity amounts to bleak “homogenization”.

    Don’t bring up perennial intranational diversity in their presence, they get kind of worked up about that lack of homogeneity.

    1. Perhaps it’s a question of balance. Too little diversity and a country becomes stagnant. Too much diversity and we can have a country coming apart at the seams. The fences around countries are like the door on your house, they let you decide who gets in. Let the Correct take the doors of their houses, then they can preach that all fences should come down.

  4. Many nation states were forged through imperialism. Most of the examples of bad nation states that gave rise to ethnic and sectarian violence were the result of haphazard boundaries being drawn around different ethnic groups by imperialist European countries. However not all nation states came about through this manner many formed under more natural conditions. It’s wrong to compare the nation state of Canada or France to the more recent nation states of Iraq or Nigeria. Not all nation states came into existence in the same manner yet the article seems to imply that much. Additionally because history was a messy affair with empires rising and falling does not invalidate the usefulness of a nation state with a shared identity even if that history is somewhat illusory. The goal of culture and society is to find the best way for groups to live and coexist. The nation state has proven itself to be a very useful system for organizing human societies and is certainly far from a dead concept and not incompatible with dealing with global problems.

  5. So the writer is not familiar with ingroup/outgroup relations? This makes him disqualified to discuss the issue. The nation is nothing but the tribe writ large.

    I see the “global governance” keyword here. No surprise. Anyone interested in where the idea came from should read Quigley’s Tragedy and Hope, downloadable for free from his website. Bill Clinton cited Quigley in his inaugural address in 1992. There’s a lot in there about global governance and the reasons nations act as they do. A great read, but long.

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    1. This essay is adapted from the first chapter of a book in progress. Tribalism and ingroup / outgroup psychology are dealt with in the second and third chapters of the book. I may write a follow-up article based on the ingroup / outgroup chapter.

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  6. The main argument in this piece seems to be that because each of the dimensions of language, history, geography and biology can not fully by themselves explain nations and admit some clear outliers, that therefore these dimensions have nothing whatsoever to do with nations – which must therefore be illusory and bear no resemblance to reality.

    This seems a pretty weak argument, as many concepts have fuzzy boundaries that lack reduction to one dimension, and yet do cleave reality at the joints in some important way.

    I’m reminded of Justice Stewart in the US, when attempting to define pornography, as saying that he can’t define it but knows it when he sees it. I suppose that the response of the author would be to show exceptions along any particular dimension and thus explain how it’s all actually an illusion.

    1. You can’t draw a crisp, mathematically exact border around the Amazon rain forest, so I take it that the author would conclude that there is no such thing, and that there is no real difference between the Amazon and the Mongolian steppe. Only an intellectual could be so dumb (pardon). So it’s an illusion that there is a France and a Germany? Ask any Frenchman or any German and they will assure you otherwise. That’s true today, when both nations are strong allies, and it would have been equally true going back to Charlemagne.

  7. ‘Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism’ by Azar Gat with Alexander Yakosbon, Cambridge, 2013. The book has been criticized by some as reductionist and biological determinist, the same critique promoted against evolutionary psychology. But I thought it was an amazing tour de force. He argues that ‘nations and nationalism are not primordial; nonetheless, they are rooted in primordial human sentiments of kin-culture affinity, solidarity, and mutual cooperation, evolutionarily engraved in human nature.’

  8. And yet, nations exist, because people feel they belong to one, for a complex combinations of reasons, linguistic, historical, geographic, ethnic, different for every nation.

    This waving of the scarecrows of ethnic cleansing, etc. is just another slippery-slope argument. The same kind made on the other side of the spectrum, “Any government interference in the business of individuals is just the first step to the gulag”…

    Any belief can be taken to a nefarious extreme, that does not make the more mainstream version dangerous, it just means don’t take any belief to its nefarious extreme.

    1. To elaborate.

      No one questions the fact that people treat their family, or their dog or cat, differently from other peoples’ families, or cats or dogs, because they are theirs and they feel a particular attachment to them in particular because they are theirs. That does not mean people hate, or devalue, other peoples’ families, or cats, or dogs. On the contrary, it usually means they are likely to value families in general, and dogs and cats in general.

      No one denies the right of people to have family businesses, where they favour their own family, although we in the West do have strong moral and legal norms about nepotism in corporations and government (which Trump is now flouting to most people’ consternation).

      Occasionally some people may go to extreme lengths to favour their own children or family members (the recent scandal in US university admissions for example), sometimes even getting aggressive and violent about it (i.e. in sports), but that is the exception, and we in the West have strong moral and legal norms against that too.

      And yet few would claim that because some people take family ties to nefarious extremes, families are illusory, or that we should do away with families and family attachments.

      The same goes with nations. Nations exist because people feel attachment to the culture they grew up in, because it is theirs. That does not mean they devalue other cultures, on the contrary, it most often means they believe other people have the right to value their own cultures, too. They may even admire other cultures, maybe even more than their own. But that means they recognize the fact that there are different nations, with different cultures, not that those are illusions that don’t actually exist.

      Good fences make good neighbours, it is said, with good reason. The way forward is to reinforce our moral codes against violence and aggression, and in favour of respect for all individuals, and strong rules about how to build and enforce respect for those fences, around nations just as much as among neighbours.

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      1. «That does not mean people hate, or devalue, other peoples’ families, or cats, or dogs. On the contrary, it usually means they are likely to value families in general, and dogs and cats in general» – My five cents: looking back over my life I can affirm: my positive attitude towards women is due to my love for my wife.

      2. A further thought.

        Some people did, indeed, try to destroy the family, precisely because they believed it was unjust to have parents preferring their children to all other children. It was a failure.

      3. My strongest objection to multicult and global homogenization is that it will make the planet so boring. I want France and Germany to be different. I want Sweden to not be a 3d world country and I want Zululand to remain proudly Zulu. Good fences not only make good neighbors, but they keep the neighborhood interesting. Nations give the planet variability and thus the possibility for evolution — we can look at, say, health care in Japan and maybe learn something from it. We can contrast health care in the US and assure ourselves that that’s the last thing we want. Homogenization is stagnation.

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