Friday, January 30, 2009

What is Nationalism?

We all have some idea of what a nationalist is: that's someone who hasn't done anything right since being born. But, what is nationalism, and where did it come from?

I agree with Eric Hobsbawm's distinction that nationalism is primarily a political program. ''It holds that groups defined as 'nations' have the right to, and therefore ought to, form territorial states of the kind that have become standard since the French Revolution.'' Various ideas of nationality existed before this time- Herder and Montesquieu were influential in terms of theory- but the political program of nationalism really emerges in the nineteenth century. It is a new way of putting forth collective claims, particularly the claim to statehood. It's worth noting that these claims were most successful in crumbling empires, such as the Habsburg and Ottoman.

There are actually two nationalist programs: the first is the claim that an ethnic group is distinct enough to require the formation of its own state; the second is that a particular 'nation-state' needs to somehow free itself of 'foreign influences'.

This gets to the problem with nationalism; while there are ethnicities in an anthropological sense, it does not follow that 'nations' even exist, and certainly not in the ways that they are often characterized by their members. And there are absolutely no states that are ethnically-pure in the modern world.

So, states that are defined by nationality eventually have to limit the political rights of minority ethnic groups: by legislating against those groups, killing them, making them part of the nation, moving them out, or suppressing them. In an evocative passage, Katherine Verdery writes: ''National symbolization includes... the process whereby groups within a society are rendered visible or invisible. For the project of nation-building, nonconforming elements must first be rendered visible, then assimilated or eliminated.''

Or, as Massimo d'Azeglio said after the unification of Italy, ''We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.''


The Pagan Temple said...

That was an understandable comment though, because before the formation of the Italian state, most people's loyalties aside from to their selves, families, and the church, was arguably to the city state. A Genoan would feel a kinship with his fellow city citizens that he would not feel for people of Venice. The formation of the Italian state necessitated beginning the process of establishing some kind of national unity that was unknown prior to this.

It was not that difficult to achieve, as they already had very much in common, obviously, but no doubt a person of Genoa today would still have an attachment to his city that he would not feel for Venice. But there is still a national unity that is strengthened by language and a heritage that goes back at least to the Dark Ages. Italians have more in common with each other than they do with say Poles. You would have to go much further back to reach that connection.

It's more than just language and bloodlines, it's a shared history, and not all of it good.

Another concern he probably had was that many of these city-states were at one point or another rivals, in some cases probably vicious rivals, so he had his work cut out for him in moving past and beyond that and bridging the divide between them. It probably wasn't that hard in a sense, as those days for the most part was generations in the past, but the distrust was so palpable it was almost inherent. Actually it was taught I guess, but that is still a considerable factor. Many of the tribal and racial rivalries that exist in America today have been taught, and it goes well beyond black and white. You can find people of Scots-Irish descent today who absolutely loathe the English, for no good reason other than its been handed down through the generations and just accepted as the way things are.

People tend to wrap up too much of their individual identities in these things, but it goes in part with the territory. Everybody wants to belong to something, or feel they do, and heritage is a big draw to them. It would be impossible and undesirable to create a completely homogenized culture, but that's pretty much what you would have to accomplish in order to do away with this in total.

In the case of the Italians, they already had far more in common than they ever had in opposition, so it wasn't that hard a sell. They seem to have held together fairly well, so it really wasn't such an artificial construct that say Yugoslavia was.

Well, anyway, sorry for the long-winded treatise, but when I saw that last quote I just thought I should add my two cents. I didn't mean for it to turn into a ten-spot, but you know how I am I guess.

Rufus said...

That's fine. Incidentally, I included the quote because I think he was absolutely right. In the transition from these smaller communities to a national community- really to a unified state- it's quite a bit of work to convince people that they actually belong to the larger community and to standardize the culture enough that the state can function.

The United States is an interesting example because it didn't really have the background of autonomous city-states- it came into being fully-formed as it were. But it's an ongoing issue of trying to convince people that their local communities are somehow of a sort with very different local communities. Somehow, people from Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California have to be convinced that they are all distinctly American, or at least enough so to belong to the same country. And then there's a great deal of assimilation that goes on. But, like he was suggesting, before people can assimilate to the nation, it has to be established, and created in some sense.

In the case of Italy, most of these city-states were very independent and competitive, so bringing them together required homogenizing the language- and the history for that matter- and convincing them that it was worth it to shift their loyalties. This is, incidentally, where education comes in. We get taught to pledge allegiance to the nation, instead of to the village.

Ernest Renan made the interesting point that establishing a nation isn't a matter so much of remembering a common history as forgetting a number of maller histories.

The Pagan Temple said...

Exactly. Given the period of intense and sometimes bitter rivalries these places had, it's understandable that he might have wondered whether unification was feasible. On the other hand, it may have worked as well as it did because a lot of these so-called rivalries was not really so much with the common citizens as it was with the city leaders who promoted it. The average Genoan probably didn't spend any amount of his waking moment, at least during most periods, hating and cursing the Venetians, he just went about the day-to-day routine of living his life.

I doubt that much really changed for the average citizen in either of the cities or in any other. They probably saw a few new national offices and courts established, took note of a few mostly inconsequential new laws, etc, and otherwise went on with their lives pretty much as was.