New Internationalist

Facts

Issue 123

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LAND [image, unknown] The facts

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The FACTS

The growth of Nationalism
Where do you come from – which country? That’s the question we ask first to pin down a stranger; belonging to a nation-state is one of out most important characteristics.

Yet the global patchwork of countries is of fairly recent origin – and nothing like as ‘natural’ a way of occupying the earth as you might think.

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A nation is a group of people who share a common history. They are likely to have the same culture and traditions and probably the same language.

[image, unknown] A state is the supreme political authority within a sharply defined territory. But it is independent both of the ruler – who can be replaced – and of the subjects.
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A Nation – State assumes that everyone within the territory of the state belongs to the same nation. The nation-state (loosely called a ‘country’) forms the basis of international political divisions.

[image, unknown] Nationalism is the ideology which holds the nation and the state together. It takes many forms but usually involves a semi-mystical attachment to the ‘historic homeland’ and its supreme authority.

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1/ Feudal Europe
The nation-state began to appear in its modern form with the collapse of feudalism in Europe. Countries in the Middle Ages tended to be run as the personal property of the monarch. The people were supposed to serve him and through him, God.

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2/ The Capitalist Breakdown
But capitalism – and the industrial development that followed it – changed all this. Wealth rather than birth of tradition now became the stepping-stone to power and rank. And the power of money caused traditional institution like the monarchy and the Church to crumble.

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3/ Rational support
Rationalist philosophers of the seventeenth century like Hobbes assisted the breakdown. Citizens, they argued – the people freed by capitalism to sell their labour – should have legal equality within a new abstract notion: the ‘state’.

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4/ The French Revolution
The French Revolution of 1789 is generally seen as the turning point. With the downfall of the king, authority was now vested firmly in the new state. France was fortunate in having strong cultural ties between most of the people on her territory


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5/ Nationalism as a Religion
Church and King had, however held the nation together. Now the state would have to find a replacement. It found it in ‘nationalism’: a set of ideas about nation and territory that creates a mystical link between people and their ‘historic homeland’.

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6/ The Colonial Empires
From Europe, nationalism spread to the colonies. The British Empire – which started as a purely commercial venture acquired overtones of a British ‘civilising mission’. The French went further, trying to turn their colonial subjects into black Frenchmen

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7/ Latin America Breaks Loose
But it was Latin America which first turned the rationalist rhetoric of Europe back against the colonisers. Calling upon their followers to claim their own country, generals like San Martin and Simon Bolivar began in 1802 to lead the colonies in wars of national liberation

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8/ Socialist change
The Russian Revolution of 1917 might have lead to the withering of the nation-state – Marx believed its disappearance would lead to the highest form of communism. But he underestimated both the persistence of capitalism and the potency of nationalism. Many socialist states since then have has to embrace nationalism and this has led to divisions among them – like that between China and Vietnam today.


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9/ The Fascist Holocaust
Hitler took the ideology of nationalism to its logical conclusion. Emphasising its racist potential he produced history’s most chilling lesson – so far – in the brute folly of nationalism.

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10/ The New Countries
After the Second World War intellectual leaders of many colonial territories pushed for independent. Steeped in the nationalism of their colonial masters, they demanded national liberation – though on many of the new countries this meant convincing diverse groups of people that they all belong to ‘one nation’.

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11/ Nation Building
To try and build one nation traditional roots had to rediscovered and embraced. This often resulted in a name change – from the Gold Coast to Ghana – or in choosing ancient cultures to identify with as in Zimbabwe. But the actual divisions are such that state rule in Africa nowadays often means rule by the dominant tribe.

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12/ The National Security State
Where the rulers cannot hold their nation together by ideology they usually revert to force – in the national interest’. Latin America countries like Chile and Uruguay offer some of the most terrifying models of the ‘national security state’. But the military coup is no surprise anywhere in the Third World.


13/ The Secessionists
Occasionally this may lead to open civil war when one nation tries breaking away from the centralised state – as with Biafra from Nigeria (unsuccessfully) or Bangladesh from Pakistan. Today’s secessionist struggles threaten nation states all over the world – from Quebec to Eritreans.
14/ The Libertarians
There has also been opposition to the idea of the state on Western countries. In the sixties a lot o this came together under the banner of opposition to the Vietnam war. But such anarchistic groupings collapsed under the economic and physical power of the state.

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15/ The Multinationals
The biggest challenge tot he nation-state might seem to come from multinational corporations. But in reality they tend to link the most powerful people in each country – those who have most to gain from the survival of the coercive state.

 

16/ Nationalism Lives
Nationalism has become the world’s most pervasive ideology. Even the maturest nations will kill for it. 1,000 people were sacrificed in 1982 for useless islands in the South Atlantic. And devastation on a wholly different scale is now threatened by super-states prepared to wipe each other out for patriotic ideals.


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