On the Persistence of Nations

I write a lot about nations, and using the nation as a category of analysis and categorization. This may seem dated, and certainly, after two or three decades of every history Ph.D. student and her dog writing dissertations about nationalism, it is no longer edgy or groundbreaking to do so. However, it is a conscious choice.  I maintain that the nation is the most powerful and relevant way in which we talk about ourselves today. This is not the case historically – it makes much more sense to talk about localities (like Athens, or Yorkshire) or civilizations and empires (like the Holy Roman one, or the Mayans) up until about the nineteenth century. Then, the idea of nations really gained global currency. And nations are still the dominant political, spatial and rhetorical organization of our world.

The world system of nations is the product of European modernity and is by no means natural. Nations were created first by European conquering powers in order to divide and differentiate peoples and create their histories. This was, of course, largely for the benefit of the conquering powers, who would use these fictional narratives to portray the colonized nations as inferior, and “behind” them on the continuum of progress. When colonized peoples became independent, they recreated and retold their historical narratives in a positive light, but kept the “nation” as the lens through which they told them, which reinforced the idea of nations as a category of analysis. Perhaps this was because the idea of “nations” escaped much of the hierarchical nature of empires and presumed an equality, or at least, commensurability, at the international level. But that was half a century ago, and there are no more empires left (at least not empires that dare speak their names).

So why do we – and I – still speak of nations?

Here are a few reasons:

Nations still aggregate power at the right level.

For all the talk of thinking globally and acting locally, or living in a post-bureaucratic age, the majority of policy is still created at the national level. Or, at the very least, the funding for policy initiatives comes from national governments, and is collected through national taxes. Voters pay more attention to electing national leaders than provincial, municipal, or supranational ones. Charlemagne blogs in The Economist this week that “national governments enjoy more legitimacy than any bit of the EU machine, if only because voters know more or less who they are voting for at national ballots,” and that EU leaders must note this as they attempt to change policy or bypass democratically elected governments in favour of appointed ones.

National governments have an advantage over regional or municipal ones, moreover, because only they can see the whole picture of which region or initiative should take priority and act accordingly (think: Canada’s equalization payments, or how the FBI prioritizes cases). And they have the means and vision to ensure policies are sustained over the long term.

National government is one of the few distribution channels to which we all pay (at least some kind of) attention.

Throughout history, people got their information from a few key places: family and friend networks, local lords or landowners, churches, and later, newspapers, radios and televisions. And the information they got was largely the same because it all originated from the same top-down power structures. Today, this is not the case: the proliferation of media and interpersonal connections we can all access through technology means we are no longer giving audience or authority to the same places. National and even local newspapers are dying in favour of blogs, and at the same time people can access the local news in Mongolia more easily than ever before. People don’t read the same three or four key magazines or watch the same television shows, so their opinions are more divergent.

But governments, and especially national governments, remain one of the few things all citizens have in common. It is difficult, for example, to be a functioning member of society and an ardent anarchist. National government continues to be the level at which disparate views band together into a few coherent, politically supported parties. And people still watch the Throne Speech and the State of the Union, and still pay attention when national leaders speak.

Corporations – for all that they are multinational in scope – must respect national laws and boundaries.

The customer is always right, but don’t think the customer is the individual – it’s the nation. Consider the fuss Google kicked up in January of this year when it refused to keep censoring its search results in China (which I wrote about in this post), an example of the lengths national governments can go to in order to block access to information. That was only the most prominent example, however; Google also censors results that are considered “locally objectionable” in other areas, including Thailand . And now even more national governments are seeking to regulate access to technology along national lines: Australia wants Google to censor all YouTube videos that are listed as “Refuse Classification” by the Australian Ratings Board, Pakistan blocks access to “offensive” YouTube videos wholesale, and Iran has done away with Gmail in favour of its own national email service.

Corporations must also consider national laws and norms when selling and marketing their products. Screening this hilariously early-1990s Coke commercial would probably be illegal in most Middle Eastern countries, and moreover, the marketing strategy would be completely different anyway because Coca-Cola is one of those products that is understood entirely differently in different nations. In the US, Canada, and most of Europe, it is just an amazingly good-tasting drink to slake one’s thirst, in some cases even a replacement for water (note that this is not actually healthy and that I do not advocate this). In much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, though, it is a dessert beverage, a treat, and a symbol of conspicuous consumption.  A bottle of Coke can cost as much as a whole meal in many of these countries, and marketing it as a common quantity would ruin its prestige. Understanding national differences is key to any corporation’s success.

Which leads me to perhaps the most important point in favour of nations:

The nation remains more of a cultural touch point for individual identity than any other level.

One need look no further than the recent Olympics to see the outpouring of pride demonstrated at the national level. National sports teams garner more cultural support than any local team. We wear national flags, sing national anthems, and study national histories and politics. The idea of the nation contains cultural capital because it is based on a romanticized notion of unity among difference. It presumes an underlying ethnographic, religious, linguistic, or racial difference as the basis for internal unity, and relies upon the psychological power that comes from being different from nearby “others.” This is why minority groups seek to break off and form their own nations (i.e. Quebec, Catalonia, Scotland) instead of localities or other entities. There is cachet in nationhood.

Many of our heroes are national. We identify with what we consider to be the fundamental tenets underlying our national philosophy: Canada is socially progressive and liberal, and has a fairly extensive welfare state – and yet we are moderate, and enjoy the relatively conservative (small ‘c’) merits of order and good government. We value peace, and work toward it both inside and outside our borders. These are all national traits. Americans are exceptional, the product of a unique set of historical chances and opportunities capitalized upon by an enterprising and fiercely individualist population. Individual rights are prized above all. These are broad ideas that a whole nation can get behind — and yet are distinctive enough to set a nation apart.

Naturally, there is room for multiple identities – even conflicting ones – for each of us. And no doubt there will be a time in the near future when the world can more logically be divided into regions, or metropoles, or supranational unions. But for now I will leave you with the lyrics to one of the most stirring hymns ever written (that, admittedly, is my opinion), still played all over the world and especially in the Commonwealth:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no question, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Can you think of another category of identity that inspires this kind of loyalty? (And does it have a flag?)

3 Responses to On the Persistence of Nations

  1. Josh says:

    Hi Kathryn! Finally catching up to your (excellent) blog.

    I come to this discussion from a justice theory perspective first. There, there has long been a broad split (though a much subtler one than I can go into in a blog post, obviously) between the various stripes of nationalists who think that it’s justifiable to differentiate the distribution of public goods based on membership in this-or-that national community, and cosmopolitans who make the case that the equality of each individual makes many of the elements of nationalism -borders, for example – morally unpalatable.

    Cosmopolitans can be hard to argue with. It really is difficult to refute the idea that a Somalian and a Canadian deserve something resembling equal treatment globally. Or, more to the point, it’s difficult to refute without being a dick about it. When a tiny proportion of our own national income could improve the lives of (say) Somalians vastly, it does seem that humanity is paying a pretty expensive price for the luxury of dividing ourselves into circumscribed communities. This leads plenty of cosmopolitan thinkers to argue for radical redistribution of global resources. The more mainstream wing – I’m thinking Habermas and friends here – make the case that the global community should be better expressed politically. What we need, they say, is some global forum more equitably constructed than the UN to reify some vision of a human community. Nice idea, on the surface.

    The thing is, like you said, people engage most readily with the concept of a nation. Now, you could argue that that’s just because supranational bodies aren’t particularly effective. Perhaps people feel like they can joke around with their European parliamentary votes (for example) because the EU parliament doesn’t impact their lives. In a sense this is true, of course. The EU, reforms or not, is still an organization that is really driven by its own bureaucratic elite. I’d be willing to contend that that holds true for pretty much any supranational organization. At some point, the scale of the governance challenge tips things away from the democratic and towards the technocratic.

    Now, I don’t think there’s need to moralize about this, per se. It is what it is. But perhaps it provides a small justification for the persistence of nations as places where, even without a democratic system as such, people can still lay claim to understandings of how the system works.

    Going back to the justice point, I think there might also be a bit more of a contentious argument about human nature here. There’s clearly something amiss with cosmopolitan accounts of morality – very few of us, however we claim to, have the same emotional connection to poor Somalians as we do to much less poor Canadians. Perhaps this isn’t some monstrous callousness but a suggestion that the scope of compassionate understanding (at least on a societal scale) has some inbuilt limits. I’m not saying that we can’t care about non-nationals, or that we shouldn’t, but I think there is some intellectual grounding for shifting our sphere of engagement from these nebulous “global” bodies not tied to anyone tightly enough to inspire the loyalty you’re talking about. The poor of Haiti might be better served if we stopped wrestling against the legitimacy of the state and started trying to use it.

    To me, the big advantage of national loyalty is that it should run both ways – national governments can be held much more explicitly to account than anything bigger.

  2. Kathryn Exon says:

    Thank you Josh – I always love your insights.

    I agree that there are some ideals that (should) transcend national borders, the assurance of basic human rights being one of them. (What is a “basic human right” seems up for debate still, however…life? escape from poverty? education? Big questions all.) I get why European nations especially subscribe to the ideal: they can. They can afford it, and they have been doing it for a while, so national loyalty is entrenched. Within nations, people “look like us,” “sound like us,” “act like us,” etc. It is easy and safe and inclusive that way. This would explain the limits of compassionate understanding, as you say. It isn’t logical; it’s visceral.

    I’d be interested in why you think residents of poorer nations who, theoretically, would benefit from doing away with the whole nation concept altogether (through more equitable global distribution of wealth, etc.) still subscribe to the “nationalist” idea at all. Or do they not, really? Because I’m sure you meant that humans are paying a pretty expensive price in more than just money to divide up as we do – in blood, in effort, in time spent crafting histories and national narratives, etc. Why not just all get together and stage a communist revolution of sorts in which we form a global government for power sharing?

    Thanks for your thoughts – I can have a bit of a blind spot for the southern half of the world sometimes, given my areas of focus, and your thoughts and reminders about it help me to be inclusive that way!

  3. […] write a lot about nationalism, because it is one of the ways we identify as part of a group, with […]

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