August 16, 2022

How the World Embraced Nationalism, and Why It’s Not Going Away Soon

The fact that the idea of national groups and nation-states seems so natural therefore self-evident—in spite of being story, recent, and modern—illustrates just how much nationalism has influenced the thinking

Perhaps one of the more astute observers of Russian international policy in recent years has been John Mearsheimer in the University of Chicago.

He has spent years warning towards US-led NATO enlargement like a tactic that would provoke turmoil with the Russian regime. Moreover, Mearsheimer has sought to describe why this conflict is present at all. Why, for example , is not going to the Russian regime simply   accept   US-led expansionism in the region?

Or simply, more precisely, why have so many Russians continued to aid Vladimir Putin in his efforts to counter US impact in the region?

After all, many countries— Belgium and Estonia, for instance— have benefited materially through embracing “ the Western. ” For Mearsheimer the answer to this question is related to the question of why the Iraqis didn’t just accept the US’s occupation of their nation. Why did so many Iraqis refuse to embrace the guaranteed “ freedom” and “ democracy” the US regime stated would flow from United states conquest?

The solution for Mearsheimer— as he outlines in  his guide on “ liberal hegemony” — can be described larger by  nationalism. Because Mearsheimer  puts it ,

In my opinion that nationalism is the most effective political ideology in the world. I believe it is no accident how the world is populated with nation-states. I think the United States is a thoroughly nationalist country. … when you hear Americans talk about American exceptionalism, American exceptionalism is American nationalism on play. ”

When Mearsheimer says that nationalism is a driving force behind the US’s conflicts with places such as Russia or Iraq, he’s not just talking about  Russian  nationalism or  Iraqi   nationalism. He’s talking about American nationalism as well. American multilateralism and internationalism is really simply American nationalism.  

He’s right, and this reality extends far beyond  US, Russia, and Iraq. The overwhelming majority of humans on earth today are nationalists to one degree or another. Their nationalism  can be held  with varying degrees of enthusiasm, naturally , but the fact is  the notion remains exceptionally popular. Its popularity explains in part precisely why national states continue to be the dominant means of organizing polities  on earth today.

It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other ways of organizing society and other ways of thinking of ourselves and how we fit into the world. The idea of nations and nation-states even as we now conceive of them  is a relatively modern concept that would once have appeared bizarre and alien to the majority of human beings 400 years ago. For the moment, though, nationalism continues to be one of the defining ideologies of our time, and it may be helpful to analyze its history and how nationalism became so important.

Where Does Nationalism Come From?

Nationalism has proven to be  a concept that is difficult to specify although it clearly is something which exists and affects the planet around us. Nonetheless, we are able to make observations about nationalism that provide us with a better understanding.

The very first is that nationalism is an ideology. That is, it is a set of tips that forms our own ideas about membership in a community shared with other human beings. Based on the ideology known as nationalism, we share common interests plus ways of living with other people within our   national  group. Very often, this nationwide group coincides very closely with a particular state. This we often call a “ nation-state. ”

This sense of national belonging is not to be baffled with a mere sense of community. People in face-to-face societies naturally enjoy a sense of community with the others in their cities or towns. People in city-states plus tribal societies, for example , encounter this on a daily basis.   Tribal communities may number only in the hundreds or low thousands and very often city-states— the Republic of Florence, for example— had residents numbering only in the thousands. Bonds through kinship,   proximity, daily encounters, plus economic interest are common within societies of this sort. Feelings of nationalism, however , suggest something on a larger size and with fewer organic provides.  

The particular influential historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson has as a result described national groups because “ imagined communities” simply because they rely on “ invented” bonds that are far less self-evident than the bonds of in-person distributed activities and extended household connections. Or, as Anderson is careful to note, nationalism is not naturally occurring, and “ nationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it  invents   nations”   (emphasis in the original). 1   Anderson continues:

Consequently, the members of even the smallest nation can never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of the communion. 2

Another important aspect of nationalism is that it is restricted and never universalist. By description, nationalism limits who is included in the imagined community, and specifically defines most human beings as “ outside. ” That is, as Anderson puts it, “ no nation imagines alone coterminous with mankind. ” 3

This can be contrasted along with other concepts that define a polity or community. For example , the particular ideology underpinning empires— like the Roman Empire— posits that will human communities outside the disposition are  simply people who have not been conquered yet plus incorporated into the Empire. Their particular inclusion within the empire does not depend on a conquered people speaking any particular language or practicing any specific cultural practices. They need not really join a Roman “ nation. ” They need not really “ assimilate. ” They need only pay tribute and post themselves to Roman principle. Conversely, these people outside the empire are not thought of as being portion of another nation.   She or he is simply potential subjects who do not yet enjoy the benefits of being subjugated by the Emperor.  

Nationalism is also quite different from the two major organizing principles that existed before nationalism:   the dynastic world and the religious community.

In modern times membership rights in a national group is usually thought to generally trump religious bonds, but it was not often so. In 2022, the Catholic Frenchman and a Catholic Italian may experience several solidarity with each other, but rarely to the degree that the 2 feel solidary with other French  and Italians, respectively. On the other hand, societies can be— and certainly have been— structured along the lines of religious practices so that membership in a religion is certainly what  primarily  determines feelings of neighborhood with others. four   Consequently, in the fourteenth century the idea that a good Italian priest and a Catholic in England were separated by “ national” differences would have been meaningless to most individuals. 5   Certainly, an English service provider or prince in that period might have found many great oppose a particular Italian bishop— the Pope, perhaps— but national identity  was not among them. Moreover, Christian institutions had been, in the words of Hendrik Spruyt, “ translocal” because their authority transcended feelings of local identity. 6

A second dominant method of arranging society before nationalism has been along the lines of the dynastic world. 7   For modern people therefore inculcated into the idea of national groups, this is a difficult idea to even imagine. A single key here is understanding that dynastic rule  was not closely connected to any particular place or population . In fact , as Bishai notes, inside an ideological framework of dynastic rule, polities “ experienced no meaning independent of the numerous princes who used these to extend their power. ” 8   Van Creveld emphasizes this particular as well in his discussion associated with pre-state polities such as empires and tribes headed simply by powerful chiefs. These regimes were identified with the specific rulers and their close up family members. There was no “ people” or “ nation” with which these princes were to be identified. nine   For example , William the Conqueror, a king of England, was not an English king. Nor do this fact imperil their claim to the throne. It was common for chiefs, monarchs, and emperors to not even know the language of their topics. Forming a language bond of this sort was simply not viewed as necessary or essential. The legitimacy of the routine was based on the effective workout of power and statements of divine right to rule— although cynics have always been much more impressed by brute power compared to supposed mandates from heaven.

Under dynastic rule, frontiers between dynastic lands were routinely moved, and the people near them might often find themselves since subjects of various kings plus princes within their lifetimes. Absence of any stable area naturally placed obstacles when it comes to the development of any particular national group tied to a particular place or culture. Moreover, as Bishai concludes, the “ acquisition of territory prior to this time around was not an act which usually created or destroyed nationwide identities. Legitimacy was inherited or patronized. The  people   were largely irrelevant. ” 10   The relationship between ruler in subject in imperial Rome was certainly not  one of national solidarity. Nor was  this type of thing hoped for. In the case of feudalism in Europe, the relationship among lord and vassal was  one of personal reciprocal oaths and quasi-contractual agreements . There was no citizenship, no  volonté nationale .

The particular elites, of course  were   appropriate, but they were more closely tied to a network which was “ international” in scope— for lack of a better phrase. They were concerned with fellow elites rather than with local populations. This was encouraged for centuries from the fact communications among elites took place in nonvernacular languages. This was Greek in the east, or whatever sacred plus imperial languages provided the dominant means of communication among elites in other parts of the entire world. In Western Europe, of course , this language was Latina, and those who communicated within Latin formed “ a single community of literacy throughout European centers of studying. Although vernaculars continued to flourish, amongst the intelligentsia there was a cross-cultural, cross-temporal conversation. ” Before widespread literacy, there “ was no  medium for the development of regional identities, ” and this additional suppressed the development of nationalism. 11

When Did the Rise of Nationalism Occur?

Eventually, the ideologies behind religious communities and dynastic rule as arranging principles faded. Perhaps the earliest signs of nationalism as a replacement ideology appeared in England, where a sense of “ national identity” — a precursor to full-blown nationalism— was unusually well developed. As historian Mark Merriman  notes

Uk national identity … can be formed precociously early within European history, arguably in the seventeenth century and for elites perhaps even before. twelve

Part of this is due to the fact that within the seventeenth century, the idea of “ England” became divorced in the dynasties that ruled over the top of it. First came the English Civil War in which “ the people” executed their particular king, and replaced him with a commoner. Then, even with the monarchy was refurbished, Parliament— supposedly a body representing a significant portion of “ the people” — saw fit to replace one king with another in the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688. The idea of “ England” was becoming  something that was not  synonymous with the monarch himself.  

But most of Europe was well behind England in developing ideologies of nationhood.

According to Merriman it is not until the time of the 7 Years’ War in 1756 that the elites in France clearly begin to think when it comes to a French people. Furthermore, they begin to think of a French people that can be betrayed  by a monarch. 13   It is not a chance that many historians date the actual birth of nationalism to the moments of the French Revolution. This is when the thought of “ the nation” cracked onto the European scene.

But it might several decades more for that idea to spread in to much of Europe. By the 1840s, the Hungarians would begin to press hard for national  self-rule in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Even in the 1840s, the Hungarians were relatively earlier to party, as far as central Europe was concerned.   Elsewhere in the empire, Merriman notes a mass embrace of the idea of national identity did not reach a critical stage until after 1880:

there was simply no sense of national identification, of being Slovene, of being Czech, of being Croat, of being Bulgarian, of being Ukrainian or Ruthenian— the two are essentially the same— until quite late in the nineteenth century. 14

By the mid twentieth century, however , nationalism had turn out to be   the   dominant ideology in terms of defining how people organized themselves socially and politically. Gone were the days of private loyalty to a monarch, or maybe the days of overriding religious solidarity. “ I am French” experienced long since replaced “ I am Catholic. ” The use a state-endorsed local vernacular had long since replaced international sacral languages.   The nation-states had replaced the ethnically indeterminate  empires. Nor could Marxism offer an alternative. The Sino-Soviet divided and the Sino-Vietnam war of 1979 illustrated Marxism’s failure to replace “ bourgeois” nationalism with international communism.  

At this point Anderson would remind us that these new ideas of nationwide identity and solidarity are not “ revealed” or “ discovered. ” They were not ideas somehow “ composed on our hearts” like divine law in Christian theology. No, the idea of national provides with countless strangers will be an  invented  idea that has created many imagined communities.   But this may not mean that nationalism is not really a powerful ideology that strongly influences the actions of billions of human beings. It is, as Mearsheimer contends, an  exceptionally   powerful ideology that can even impel many people to kill and perish for reasons of “ national honor” or the “ national interest. ”

Once this concept is secured, it is only a small step to the approval of the idea  of a nation-state  and territorial national “ fatherlands” and “ motherlands” tied to a specific national team.

Yes, the concept is relatively modern, and background has made it clear that will national identity is not the only method of organizing human culture. Yet, at this point in history, it really is clear that nationalism remains popular. In spite of countless efforts by global elites in recent decades at supplanting nationalist sentiment, few human beings have shown much willingness to abandon their ideas associated with national identity. The fact that the idea seems so  organic   to most of us— in spite of being therefore novel, recent, and modern— illustrates just how much the idea provides influenced our thinking.  

Moreover, because the slow rise of nationalism has shown,   sea changes in ideology and self-identity can take  generations   to occur. Even when we can find evidence that will nationalism is in decline— plus there is  some evidence to suggest this — nationalism nevertheless appears to have a lot of living left in it. For now.

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