Does Nationhood Matter?

We have a global marketplace, stateless corporations, an on-line society where our genetics, gender, faith, political leanings do not segregate us. The old hooks of belonging is evaporating. Belonging includes “fitting in”. Is being part of a “nation” still valid since its emphasis and predominant loyalty at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Century? There are countries, continents, islands–but what is a nation? As with any word, it has different meanings to different people. In the current emerging and shifting Islamic states, how might studying other evolutions of society of the past give us insights?

Exploring a few historical contexts over “nationhood” enables us to learn what kinds of questions to ask one another, how to hear and understand others better in the turmoil of the 21st Century. Since we, as a human race, continue to attack one another’s countries we need to constantly and consistently ask the good questions and critically evaluate our conclusions to avoid knee-jerk reactions to our world. This blog sources my old university lecture notes to help enhance the reader to be more mindful and reflective on the issues on the world stage today. How may we look at the world stage differently with a clearer understanding of the shifting patterns of societies?

Do You See Yourself?

Today, the state is the final source and recourse for human needs. This was not true 150 years ago. Even today, the tension over this one statement fuels many a legislative debate and political campaign. Those of us who enjoy this governmental posture when it is economically, efficiently and effectively executed to assist the people in a country’s borders, tend to forget how recent and fragile this privilege is. That a people, and each individual, should have political significance remains a growth industry.

About 1830, nationality was used synonymously with race. How many forms have you filled out that enquired about your “nationality” and they were asking about your genetic makeup? Old habits die hard. Constant vigilance is required.

It wasn’t certain in the early 19th Century that loyalties to the nation would increase or dominate. Would these loyalties evolve into nationalism by which the basic loyalty of most of society is given to a nation state already in existance or hoped for? That devotion is given primarily to the ends of a nation state. he “ends” of the said nation state may fluctuate with the tides or (worse) have a completely different outcome in mind from the stated goal.

Nationalism Implications

The very devotion to a nation contributes to the ability of the nation state to exert more power over individuals and groups within it. This is furthered along with better communication and transportation but it wouldn’t assure greater central power.

  1. In return for loyalty to government, people expect the government to solve problems for them leading to a new notion of an active and national state: the more the state gives, the more loyalty to it and the populace expect more from the state.
  2. Nationalism brings an assumption of righteousness about it, like varieties of religion, communism. Assumes given values are unquestionable values and superior to all others. Does the government have sovereignty? Do governments have the right to do anything they want to do? Can police do anything they want? Are there limits to governmental powers? Who can place or define these limits? What is the relationship of this state to other states?
  3. Problems arise when two extreme nationalists confront each other, unwilling to compromise.
  4. This kind of nationalism leads to a certain kind of national values over personal values. Personal goals were to be achieved through the nation. Disagreement with national goals becomes treason. This notion of dissent as treason is particular to the last two centuries and is particular in totalitarian countries.

By the end of the 19th Century, the dominance of nationalism meant that any conflict between nations had to be mass ones. The conflict did not limit itself between monarchs and states, but between peoples with an outcome of an increase in casualties as with World War I and WWII. Could this stem from the individual acquiring more value generally and has become a worthier target? Or is the individual more invested in the process and seeks more readily to engage in the larger issues that once was reserved to the monarch and state? Where might this have played a part?

Socially Created Loyalties 

Inherent loyalties decrease as loyalty to nationalism increases. In the 19th Century the debate between the respective rights of parents and governments blossomed with child labor laws as parents needed the income. Public education was resisted since children were needed to farm. Mennonite communities were pitted against the government. Tribal loyalties, religion, and secular moral humanitarianism where humanity is more important than nationhood impact our sense of loyalty. Humanitarianism born of the Enlightenment Age insists on moral principles, universal values, that nations have to bow to.

The 20th Century saw local and provincial loyalties in Germany even after tribalism was long-gone. In 1780 a Frenchman would identify himself as a Norman if he lived in Normandy. Greek city states, feudal manor lords and personal loyalty, regional loyalties in Canada, class, aristocracies, inter-marrying within a class structure, Marx working class emphasis, spiritual-racial loyalties with Jews and the homeland and Palastinian identity, white racism and black militancy, women’s liberation movement enter into the mix illustrating the various conflicting loyalties one soul may have to juggle.

The question is, do many loyalties dilute a limited supply of the individual’s commitment quotient, or is it like the parent and grandparent who discovers one’s capacity to love more and more, and more fully as one’s family grows and each child has unique gifts and needs? I submit that one’s point of view creates that reality for the individual. So, be careful what you wish for.

The feudal structure was finally broken in the 18th Century as a sense of nationhood began. Class loyalties were more important than national loyalties were royalty married royalty, not one of their own nation. On the eve of WWI, the King of England, Emperor of Germany, Czar of Russia all were cousins. Many of the aristocracy of Russia didn’t know Russian but knew German or French. Italy and Germany didn’t exist. A non-European Empire, the Ottoman Empire held extensive territory in Eastern Europe. All of the Eastern Europe was in control of either the Hapsburg Empire, Russian Empire or Ottoman Empire. In the 18th Century, north and south Italy had different languages. There was little sense of centralization of government in France: it took nine days for travel from Paris to Bordeau, a major part of France. How times change! We can barely imagine what life will be like 50 or even 20 years from now.

By the 19th Century national loyalty became the most important in Western Europe, dominant in most of society and likely peaked in WWI. Boundaries were drawn according to nation, not religion.

In the 16th Century, land was still considered owned by the ruler, not belonging to a people. Religious boundaries were drawn according to the religion of the prince. How much of that approach is still in play in the world today? What variations of the same can you see?  

Inventing a Collective Self

The 18th Century definition of what makes a nationality: a considerable quantity of those people who inhabit a certain extent of territory and who obey the same government. It had nothing to do with culture, language or other indentifying marks. It was a very cosmopolitan world filled with optimism.

The 19th Century ushured in a Germany mind-set: Was a Jew a Jew? Was he an alien presence or was he a German? Their solution was to come up with a different definition of nationalism which included language, common literature and customs (heritage). Boundaries were revised (1860s war) to accomodate this definition. A clear prelude to the 20th Century WWI and WWII.

The Swiss had four languages. The different languages came to mean similar things. There was war over natural boundaries between the USA and Canada, between France and Germany. We continue to exist in the creative and not-so-creative tension between common historical or ethnic backgrounds verses a melting pot. When one is loyal to nationhood, does that necessarily mean hostile to others and their way of doing things?

Rationalize or Justify?

By the end of the 18th Century, one point of view indicated that past experience justifies a nation’s existence (very large squatter’s rights that carries over to future generations like long lost inheritors). A need for freedom is a common refrain. “God” is resurrected by atheists to justify their principles, including Germany in 19th Century and Hitler’s race obsession (self-loathing), and the U.S. was “destined” to grow.

Justifications are slung about even today. Conduct and goals of a particular nation-state are affected. The more leaders are convinced of their own righteousness, the more willing they will sacrifice traditional morality and others to their goal. The Taliban justify, Pres. Bush justifies, and it will continue to go on and on.

State Building

Nationality was developing one way and the power of governments was developing in another way. They came together in the 19th Century but often separate in the early development. In the 17th and 18th Century governmental power was increasingly centralized. It was an attempt of monarchs to reduce older powers of aristocracy and church and to enhance loyalty to themselves. The particular local and class loyalties were combined with the one universal loyalty (religion as seen as institutional powers) to one new particular power of the state (not yet the nation-state).

State building had implications for the nation as well. The Monarch began to guarantee the rights of the people. He became the source of laws in the state. One law-one state. before the 18th Century, local laws and customs were much more important than a legal code. Except for the canon law code of the church, codes were not common and weren’t followed unless they co-incided with the local customs.

  1. Prussia had one law code for a state which had been a good base for nationhood making it a strong 19th Century nation-state.
  2. Administrative reforms followed on the law codes. Administration in the 18th century were used to give deliberately integrate the nation.
  3. The wars of the 18th Century gave monarchs an excuse to raise taxes through administration. Increase administration and government. The problem of the Middle Ages was Monarchs didn’t have anyone to follow through on their decrees.
  4. Religion was transformed before it was used. It was the soul of the nation for some. It wasn’t a secular ideology yet, but the church was to serve the state as long as it didn’t hound the state. The state dominated, not religious values. This was to reduce the bitter religious division of the previous century.
  5. Authoritarian utilitarian elitist education and censorship regulated state goals.

Efficiency can be used for good or ill. WWI and WWII demonstrated both.

When you look at CBC, CNN, BBC, do you see these emerging nations today? What sort of effect is it having?