Political Concepts: Nation

jeu_de_paumeBirth of a nation

The greatest champions of the modernist theory of nationalism were Ernst Gellner, Benedict Anderson, and Eric Hobsbawm.  This trio blazed a trail mapped out in the previous century by Karl Marx and Ernest Renan [pdf: fr en].  Both Marx and Renan accepted the commonsense view that nations are real, but with caveats.  Marx argued that nations are quite real, but national interests are illusory.  Renan argued that nations are quite real, but ethnonational ties are illusory.

Marx, Renan, and others of the same tendency sparked a century-long research program into nationals’ (alleged) illusions about their nations.  Over time, both the ambitions and the methods of the research evolved.  Opponents of various forms of nationalism were drawn ever-closer to a specific conceptual strategy: if a category does not correspond to anything which actually exists, then all beliefs about it are perforce illusions.

The theories of Gellner, Anderson, and Hobsbawm mark the culmination of this program.  They (and their students) produced a blizzard of historical evidence and theoretical models in support of the conclusion that the nations and nationalities we are familiar with in the contemporary world simply did not exist until very recently, when they were brought forth by social dynamics tied to modernization and industrialization.

My strategy in Natives and Nationalism was to grant the “modernists” all the premises they could reasonably claim; grant them also their conceptual framework; and establish that even so, there was something nation-like going on long before nations were supposed to exist.

Having framed the topic so congenially to the “social construction” thesis, I then drew a conceptual contrast between nationalism and parochialism, to the effect that whatever one might say about nations, parishes have existed since forever, and parish-natives and their parochial attitudes are certainly real.  Reasonably, some readers saw “Parishes are definitely real” and drew out the implication “Nations aren’t as real as parishes”.  But my intention was closer to the reverse!  (a) Given that parishes and their native inhabitants are nation-like phenomena, (b) that natives are real and existed long before any alleged cause of modern nation-states, and (c) that natives/parish life gives rise to parochialism rather than vice-versa, we therefore have prima facie reason to believe that (d) the same dynamics play out on larger scales, in larger communities which are less tight-knit than parishes, but whose members still have commonalities which cause them to develop attitudes akin to parochialism.

the_fox_and_the_grapesCaution: Construction Area

There is a very broad sense of “social construction” in which things that have been put together naturally (like trees and rocks) and things that have been put together by craftsmen (like tables and chairs) are nonetheless socially constructed as well. I’m actually quite friendly to this way of looking at things, but this is rarely what people mean.  If nations are socially constructed, but according to your social theory grapes are also socially constructed, the French nation and the Japanese nation are no more illusory than a bunch of grapes.

When someone starts trying to smash something with the social-construction hammer, often he only means that the distinctions in questions are fuzzy (rather than discrete) or contingent (rather than necessary).  One should always try to be clear!  If this is what you mean, say “Fuzzy and contingent,” rather than “socially constructed”.

Once you have given a more precise account of what you mean when you say “Nations can’t be real because they’re socially constructed,” we can evaluate the logic of the inferences. In particular, if “socially-constructed distinction” means no more than “a fuzzy, contingent distinction,” this can only establish that the discreteness and/or necessity of such a distinction are illusory, not that the distinction itself is.

Distinctions between colors are ambiguous.  When you go from pixel to pixel along a continuous spectrum, you never see two adjacent pixels that are different colors.  In fact, color-perception is so finely attuned to chromatic gradations that you will inevitably use different color-words describe a certain hue based on what colors surround it.  Colors are fuzzy, and our descriptions of them are situational.  Nonetheless, colors are real.  Our distinctions between them are real.

QLExtendedFamilyRelationsipsNations are also fuzzy, because all groups are fuzzy.  (Ask yourself: what distinguishes a “big group” from a “small group”?) Furthermore, if nations are on one end of a continuum of groups whose members live more-or-less “interconnected” lives, nations will have to be fuzzy because describing how closely connected/related two things are is fuzzy.

Speaking of “relatedness”: the shared characteristics of groups with fuzzy boundaries are often called family resemblances, a term popularized by Wittgenstein.  Families have fuzzy boundaries because one is always related to one’s relatives relatives.  Beyond parents, siblings and children, there are parents’ parents, parents’ siblings, siblings’ children; and beyond all these close relatives there are distant relatives, and even more distant.  The group of people you imagine when you think my family are related to one another to different degrees, and via different branches of the family tree; thus the traits that “your family” shares vary across the different branches.

Sometimes “my family” will refer to the members of someone’s household; at other times it will refer to the larger group that gathers to celebrate holidays together, or the still-larger group that shows up to the family reunion.  The latter two references simply refer to a larger group of people, many of whom only distantly related, and sharing (presumably) a weaker family resemblance.

Such references are perfectly clear, but if one can also avoid any ambiguity by using terms which pick out more distant relationships.  Several families which are all related to each other form a clan; several related clans form a tribe.  Sometimes a legal system (or religious ritual, tradition, etc.) makes group-affiliation the basis for legal obligations, and in that context words like clan and tribe may have strict meanings and defined boundaries; but usually they are fuzzy and can be used contrastively, just like family. For groups larger and more distantly-related than tribes, usage is less consistent, but there is no reason why we cannot grab words when we need them.  Ethnos or ethnic group is one common way to refer to groups which have grown larger than tribes, and thus passed the point where there is any formal genealogical or even pseudo-genealogical theory about how the parts of the group are internally related.  And if we wanted another word for still-larger groups… well, what about nation?

Nation would do nicely.

Intermezzo: Countries, Counterfactuals, and Construction

When you are trying to defend a certain thesis about the nature of nations — that they are “socially constructed,” or whatever else — the more clearly you state (i) what you take your thesis to mean and (ii) why you think it matters, the more productive the subsequent discussion will be.

Borders? We dun need no stinkin’ borders

In a discussion with friends about Natives and Nationalism I heard the following argument:

  1. The Italian nation could not have existed prior to the nineteenth century;
  2. Because right up until the unification of the Kingdom of Italy, there was still a possibility that the Kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont and the Kingdom of Two Sicilies could both continue to exist side-by-side;
  3. So each might have controlled, say, half of the Italian peninsula;  
  4. And if such a division had become permanent, there would be two nations on the Italian peninsula today — one in the North and one in the South.

What is this counterfactual supposed to prove?  At a glance, it’s tempting to think that the conclusion would show the existence of the Italian nation to be contingent on historical events (e.g., the success of Garibaldi’s rebellion).  But if you consider a nation to be one of the fuzzy relatedness-groupings on the family>tribe>nation scale, then the matter is much simpler: the Sardinia-Piedmont tribe and the Two-Sicilies tribe are two smaller, closely interrelated tribes, and both fit inside the larger, loosely interrelated Italy-tribe.

Maybe a different interpretation of the relationship between political unification and nationhood would be more charitable to my friend’s argument. Perhaps the policies implemented by the state apparatus of unified Italy increased the interrelatedness and internal coherence of the Italian population over the course of the next 150 years.  (For example, the policy of population transfers from the rural south to the industrial north must have greatly increased the extent to which Northern Italians and Southern Italians were related to one another, traveled to visit with one another, and interacted with each other.)  In the counterfactual, there would have been no Kingdom-of-Italy development programs making the entire peninsula more interrelated; but there might have been policies in the north that made the Sardinia-Piedmont tribe more tightly interrelated, and likewise in the south for the Two-Sicilies tribe.

Can you spot the problem?

In short, a social-constructionist who argued thus would be delivering a powerful uppercut directly into his own jaw. He claims the cohesiveness of the “Kingdom of Italy” super-family, relative to that of the “North Italy” and “South Italy” sub-families, has risen since 1815, but there is a counterfactual world where the reverse would have happened. If you take the reality of a nation to have something to do with its cohesiveness relative to alternative family-groupings that overlap with it, then this counterfactual proves that in actual history Italy became the real nation but at one point it was possible Two Sicilies and Sardinia-Piedmont would have become the real nations.

Therefore, the apparent necessity of the Italian nation is an illusion; comparison of real nations across possible worlds identifies different real nations in each, and thus proves their contingency. So some (if not all) nations exist contingently, not necessarily. But this is where the proof ends: it cannot establish that nations themselves are illusions, because it argues that certain nations are real (in each possible world) in order to prove a claim about their modality.

I could not possibly hope (in any possible world!) to refute every social constructionist who has ever attempted to a counterfactual demonstration that nations (or other family-groupings) are illusory. But you will generally find that they follow the same pattern.

  1. Either they equivocate between:
    • An argument about modality, which uses a tacit standard of the reality of a nation to establish that a different chain of historical events would have caused different nations to become real;
    • An entirely inconsistent attitude about illusion, which insinuates that entities which aren’t metaphysically necessary aren’t real;
  2. Or they equivocate between:
    • An argument about ambiguity, to the effect that each level of a family-grouping is every bit as real as all the other levels;
    • A (parallel) attitude about illusion, which insinuates that if the relationships within a grouping are ambiguous, if the borders between them fuzzy, then the groups themselves aren’t real.

Once you have nailed down whether the claim is supposed to be about modality or ambiguity (or both), and you have identified the standard they use to prove the existence of counterfactual nations in a possible world, or the existence of different overlapping levels of family-grouping, you can point out to him that his own assumptions show us how to identify real groupings and thus rule out the conclusion that the existence of such groupings is an illusion.

Our detour through the field of social construction has come to an end. It is now safe to remove your hard hats.

Why nations (and natives) matter

Having shown the poverty of the argument that nations are not real, we must now move on to the opposite question: are there compelling arguments that they are real? The significance of natives to the irreality of nations might become more clear if we think of the debate about nationalism as motivated by a more fundamental question: What sorts of reasons do people have to be loyal to their communities and polities?

If nations are real, their attributes might give co-nationals independent reasons to cooperate with one another.  If nations are illusions generated by nationalist ideologies and attitudes which are selected for propagation because they cause “co-nationals” to cooperate, then nations would not be an independent reason for loyalty.  (Although if you did have unrelated reasons to be loyal, your loyalty could lead you to intentionally encourage nationalism because it has this unifying effect.)

So whether nations are real or illusory does matter.  Yet if before asking “Do co-nationals have reasons to be loyal to their nation?” we ask “Do natives have reasons to be loyal to the rest of their parish?” we see that there are many excellent (if parochial!) reasons for natives to be loyal, and there is no way the natives could have erroneously acquired the belief that they are natives of a certain place.  A native’s parochial loyalty did not create his birthplace (much less the other natives); certainly, these parish-scale communities and their natives long pre-date the printing press, the factory, and the levée en masse, and cannot plausibly be explained by them.

But if the dynamics of dwelling in the same location give people reasons to be loyal to their native parishes, then these dynamics are still sources of loyalty as we consider groups which dwell in progressively larger “locations”.  The resulting loyalty might be weaker in larger groups, as greater distances and looser networks lead to increasingly indirect ties between “locals”, but so long as any of the dynamics that lead to parochial attitudes are still operating (even if only in attenuated form) insides the larger group, the lives the natives lead together will continue to inform their attitudes towards the group, and there will be no question about whether these group-attitudes created an illusion about a group of people, all native to a certain area, living interconnected lives within it.

As these progressively larger nation-like groups approach the size of actual nations, the question of whether nations are “real” or “illusory” melts into irrelevance.  Groups native to the same (large) area are obviously real.  The interconnections between their lives are real.  The only remaining question is: to what extent do the dynamics of shared location continue to arise at this scale?

Benedict Anderson’s version of the modernist theory is in some ways the most interesting, because he anticipates this difficulty and makes the reality of parochial loyalties the core of his argument.  According to Anderson, the illusion of a nation is created precisely by taking the cues which teach people that they are residents of a certain village or parish, and recreating them on a vastly larger scale: these cues cause the targets to feel as though they are all living in a certain village, only there is no village.

Thus Anderson’s tagline: “imagined communities”.  The “imagined communities” argument has a fatal weakness, however.  On close examination, Anderson appears to equivocate between nations and national elites: his account of how people come to suffer from false consciousness seems to describe the ideology of national elites accurately enough, but is a poor match for anyone else (which is to say, practically everyone).  But then again, when an elite is sufficiently tight-knit and insular, maybe they aren’t wrong to imagine they all reside in the same village; this is the subtext of Villagers and Eurocrats.


2 thoughts on “Political Concepts: Nation

  1. Oh boy. I will have a lot to write on this subject. Suffice to say, it was my primary motivation for starting my blog, but I intend to save it as a multi-part series near the end after I have exhausted the other subjects I wish to write on.

    However, I think the realist-nominalist axis is the wrong lens to examine this with. Nations are neither, they’re more of an “actual idealist” motivator to action that Giovanni Gentile might have spoken of. The proper framework is nationalism v. legitimism, but that’s all I have to say right now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know exactly how you feel. A version of this piece and 3-4 related sketches have been (ma)lingering in my drafts folder for 6+ months: what you see is my “…and that’s all I have to say right now.”

      Btw: since it seems like you would appreciate the distinction, note that I didn’t accuse anyone of nominalism. Or at least I hope I didn’t! It actually straddles both sides of the r-n divide. The social-construction strategy has many sophisticated defenders have tried to give it a solid metaphysical foundation: these tend to be nominalists or anti-realists who say there’s no fact-of-the-matter about what “France” is, or who is “French”. But in practice, most people following the strategy go in for naive realism: i.e. they would say that “nation” doesn’t name a natural kind, so nations aren’t real.


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