the archives

dusted off in read-only


Nationhood posted 11 Dec 2006, 17:12 by Peter, Auditor

Warning, this is a long post. For some time now (probably two years) I have been working my way towards this point of view, though it is still definitely a work in progress. Very simply put it is this: I believe that the notion of nation is inherently flawed and irrational and hence that it is irrational to want to belong to a national community. I will state at the outset that I am a third culture child, so British parents, but brought up in Belgium, went to a sort of international school etc. and this may explain (causally) why I argue as I do (though what matters is whether the arguments are sound, not where they come from). I am going to use a rather general account of National Identity, shared culture, history, language and a desire to live together. Of these history is going to be the most important, followed closely by culture (lots of nations share languages and non-nations can easily desire to live together). This shared history and culture is going to be central to national identity in a way that language and desire to live together are not. Language because same language does not imply same nation (consider England vs. Scotland vs. Australia vs. America vs. India etc.), so it is not a sufficient basis for a nation, and nor is it a necessary one, for it is conceivable that a nation can be formed from different linguistic communities (perhaps Belgium, or Yugoslavia before it broke up). So neither necessary, nor sufficient, but rather only something it is useful to have. Desire to live together is necessary to the notion of nationhood, after all it is hardly possible to claim identity with some greater group and yet wish to be entirely separate from them. Add to this the idea that nationhood generally implies a move towards statehood (or is held to do so). It is not however sufficient, after all many groups of people have similar desires to live together, even in states of their own. Cults move out to the desert to commune with their conception of God (or other), certain people want states identified by religious affiliation etc. A desire to live together does not imply or entail nationhood, so it is not sufficient. More central to nationhood is shared history and culture, which will certainly be necessary to nationality and although they will only be jointly sufficient to provide a foundation for nationhood with desire to live together, I would suggest that a reasonable interpretation of this desire is that it springs from the shared history and culture. So, if I can show that there is some problem with the notion of shared culture and history, then I think I can show that there is a problem with the notion of nationhood. What is my gripe with shared history and culture then? The answer is very simple, boundaries. There are no boundaries to what belongs to nation which are not drawn from the notion of nationhood already. What I mean by this is that to know what, say, British history is, we need already to know what it is to be British (I admit that Britain is not a nation, but it is not relevantly different with regards to the purposes of this argument) It cannot be defined by physical location, i.e. “British history is what ever happened in this area of land, which we nowadays call the UK”, because paradigmatically “British” history occurred all over the place, from the battle of Trafalgar, to India, to the South Pole. So perhaps we might describe British history as that which is performed by British people, but there we must define what it is to be British without relying upon a notion of British nationality. Again the territorial option is not good enough, Wellington was born in Ireland, Tolkien in South Africa, and many other famous Britons elsewhere in the world. We might suggest something about being born to British parents, but then that seems to cause problems for naturalisation as well as requiring some people to be British without being born to British parents. Even if we accepted this definition of British people as the basis for British history, we still would not get what we wanted. Apparently, the majority of sailors and ships on the victorious side in that sea battle were, by the above definition, not British. When ships were captured, it was often the case that the crews would be hired by the side that captured them, and so, apparently, the majority of ships and crews on the “British” side were French and Spanish in fact. Was it therefore a British victory? One might argue, I suppose that it was led by Nelson who was British and hence that the event in question was a British victory. But then on that account, the battle of Waterloo was a joint British-Swedish victory, for Blucher, the commander of the Prussian forces, was Swedish. Perhaps it might be argued that historical events are “owned” by whichever nation it most effects, so the victory at Trafalgar safeguarded Britain against invasion by Napoleonic troops etc. But then causal effects spread out in all directions, irrespective of nationhood. Pearl Harbour ensured that Britain was able to stand against Germany by ensuring that America entered the war (admittedly Hitler declared war on America), and so by causal action, Pearl Harbour seems as much to belong to British history as to American or Japanese. In the end, the only reasonable interpretation of historical events which allows one to place ownership of them in one camp or another is the explicit or implicit use of the notion of nationhood. Trafalgar is a British victory, because it was done by “Britain” in “Britain’s” national interest. No other account of ownership of history can account for everything which is supposed to be paradigmatically owned by some particular nation. But if we accept this interpretation, we find that our notion of nationhood relies upon shared history and culture and the notion of sharing history and culture relies upon the notion of nationhood. Rather, we imagine a community, an identity which we then impose on objects which we find in the world. We will never meet and come to know every other person in our nation, so we imagine that there is something held in common between us, this history, but the history itself is imagined (i.e. the ownership of it is). Again an example might help make my point. The Blitz in 1940. Imagine two people, A and B. A lives in a nice part of London whereas B lives in a less nice area and the two have never, nor will never meet. One night during the Blitz B’s house is hit and completely destroyed and what little is left is looted. My complaint is that people identify A and B as having both essentially lived through the same experience in 1940, namely the Blitz. Actually the two have had completely different experiences and B will have more in common with a German person whose home and goods were destroyed than she will with A. And yet there is a shared sense of “the Blitz”. It is an imagined unity. I hold that the nation is the same, we have vastly different experiences of life and yet imagine that they are unified by something “greater”, something shared. But there is nothing, it is illusory. It might be argued that there is a unity of experience in a nation. For instance, in Britain there is a national curriculum, so every school child learns much the same thing as every other child. Or the fact that the free healthcare exists for all people creates a similarity in everyone’s lives. I have two gripes with this. The first is that the national curriculum and the NHS exist [i:2yazy26y]because [/i:2yazy26y]we have imagined that there is such a thing as a nation and shared history and hence it is reasonable to impose some general features on everyone’s lives. My second complaint is more basic and more important, I think. I disagree with the idea that everyone has the same experience. How one is taught in a school is very important to how one experiences it, just as how one is oneself (interested in learning, desirous of doing well etc.). The national curriculum does not ensure that we all experience the same sort of thing, because we are all different and were taught differently and experienced different class dynamics etc. The NHS differences are even starker, for I may never enter a hospital in my life, or I may be struck down with cancer aged 28. My experiences of the NHS will be vastly different from most other peoples, because most other people will not be ill in the same way I am, and so to believe that we experience the same thing in free healthcare is imagined. Nations are like this, they are imagined. They are artificial. They are based upon a notion of shared history and culture (ok I haven’t specifically dealt with culture but I hope it is relatively clear how the arguments will work) which relies upon the concept what it is to belong to the nation already. I don’t make the claim that nations are not real, if I were then whenever I made reference to “British, French, German” etc. not in quotation marks I would be speaking of unreal things and hence my arguments would reduce to meaningless incomprehensibility. My point is not that they do not exist, but that their existence is irrational and hence that they [i:2yazy26y]should[/i:2yazy26y] not exist. More generally I think that most of these arguments will apply to any community which one comes to belong to without some element of choice. I can belong to the role0playing community, in a very general sense, because I have chosen to take up role-playing as a hobby. The real feature of my enjoying role-playing games ties in to the real feature of other people enjoying role-playing games and insofar as I am interested in groups of people who share my interest (as I will be because role-playing is not a solitary activity) one might want to describe me as a member of a community. But I am not British, though I have a British passport, and I am not European, though my natural inclinations pull me towards this sort of identification. I am two things. I am an individual defined by a point of view on the world and I am a member of the set of rational beings (rationality being a shared characteristic relevant enough to warrant identifying with a group). I relate to other people either as members of this set of rational beings (when I don’t know them and have no common or repeated interaction with them) or as individuals who I know (note both groups are to be treated with respect and dignity, but the latter group, in being friends, family and acquaintances can make other demands on me). Right, this is a long post I realise, but I would be interested to find out what people think. view post


The Three Seas Forum archives are hosted and maintained courtesy of Jack Brown.