Even though the 21st century is marking significant decline in barriers around the world, nation-ness is still the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time. To many people, nationalism is more important than the other ideologies such as communism, as we have seen the war between socialist countries, which all should be ally nations in theory. Over the past two centuries, hundreds of millions of people died for the nation, the seemingly mystic conception.
Although political power of nationalism is quite strong, it’s philosophically notably poor and even incoherent; nationalism has no Hobbesses, Tocquevilles, Marxes, or Webbers. Some call nationalism the pathology of modern developmental history. In 1983, when nationalism had much intensive influence to the society, Benedict Anderson wrote “Imagined Communities” and defined what is the nationalism, where it came from and how it evolved.
Anderson defined the nation as 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. In that sense, all communities larger than primordial villages of face-to-face contact are the product of imagination.
The nation is imagined as limited, because even the largest of them has finite boundaries, beyond which lie other nations. The nationality is by definition very exclusive one; even the most messianic nationalists do not dream of a day when all the member of the human race will join their nation.
The nation is imagined as sovereign, because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained (appointed), hierarchical dynastic realm. In other words, the sovereignty of nation came to us to replace the old values, which were demolished after the Revolution.
The nations are communities, because they are always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship, regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible for so many people to be willing to die for such limited imaginings.
Background of the rise of imagined community
The nationalism is the product of culture and modernity. Before modern era, there were other cultural forces that provided us with communities; the strongest one is religion and dynastic realm.
The mystic influence of religion was undermined after the technological advancement such as publishing technology, telescope, etc. The Revolution toppled down dynasties, considerably weakening the divinity of kings. After these events, fundamental cultural conceptions lost their axiomatic grip on human minds.
Printing technology and print-languages also laid the bases for national consciousness in three ways. First and foremost, they created unified fields of exchange and communication below Latin and above the spoken vernaculars. Second, print-capitalism gave a new fixity to language, which helped to build the image of antiquity so central to the subjective idea of the nation. Third, print-capitalism created languages-of-power; some printed languages gained particular power to form the imagined communities.
The first nationalism was seen in United States and its struggle for independence. Anderson claimed that neither economic interest, Liberalism nor Enlightenment could create the imagined communities. He argued that cultural factors, notably pilgrim creole functionaries and provincial creole print-men, played the decisive historic role.
The second wave of nationalism came under the name of official nationalisms inside Europe. The officinal nationalism – willed merger of nation and dynastic empire- is born to make the empire attractive by using national drag, i.e. the official nationalism is used to conceal the discrepancy between rising national awareness and dynastic realm. Thus, these nationalisms were historically impossible until after the appearance of popular linguistic-nationalisms, without which the nationalism did not gained the popularity allowing the empire to conceal its internal contradiction. The official nationalism, of course, was Barmecidal one; people in the colonized countries, e.g. Korean under Japan empire, had no way to achieve the position to administer Japanese government.
The final wave of nationalism was born after the end of two World Wars. By 1922, Habsburgs, Hohenzollerns, Romanovs and Ottomans empires were gone, and after the WWII, even Portuguese empire became the thing of the past. The legitimate international norm became the nation-state, generating the last wave of nationalisms mainly in Asia and Africa. Anderson argued that there are three fundamental reasons behind the rise of the last nationalism: first and foremost was the enormous increase in physical mobility thanks to the progress of transportation means, which made people possible to recognize their region as nation; second was imperial “Russification”, which governs colony nations through recruiting natives of the nations, the governance style that allowed people to image their communities better; third was the spread of modern style education in colonial countries, and the educated people became the central figures of nationalism movement.
The book allowed me to have a bit more objective viewpoints on nationalism, which was always around me, raised me, and in some cases plagued me. The explanation that nationalism has cultural origin like religion and dynasty helped me to understand why so many people were willing to sacrifice themselves for the sake of their nations; in some sense, the war for nationalism may be akin to religious wars that human beings carried out for many centuries.
That said, something is still not clear to me. It is perhaps just because nationalism is too close to me – people tend to specialize what is around them. However, to me, nationalism seems to be more than what is imagined. The origins of religious group or dynastic realm may be the product of imagination in the first place (some may argue that God is just what is imagined, and some say He exists). On the other hands, some origins of nationalism, namely language, do exist, and there seems to be difference from other imagined communities. To me nation-ness is imagined community as well as something down-to-earth.
Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities” (new edition), First published by Verso 1983 and this edition published by Verso 2006.