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[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 277

The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

Bullets and borders

The nation-state is on its last legs - but people are still prepared to die for their country. Nikki van der Gaag finds out why.

As I write this, Chechen separatists and their civilian hostages have been pounded to pieces by the Russian army in the village of Pervomayskoye. Some, to the Russians' chagrin, have escaped, many have died, hostages and fighters alike smashed to bloody pulp. The Chechens were prepared to die - and if necessary to see their hostages die - for the sake of something they prize more than life: a country of their own.

Across the other side of Africa, three women sit in the middle of the Algerian desert. They have eyes only for their work. They are sewing a large brightly-coloured carpet: greens and reds and yellows and blues on a black background. In the middle are the Arabic words: Al watan aw al mowt. A homeland or death. These are Sahrawi women, whose people have been fighting a 22-year battle to wrest their piece of desert from Moroccan rule.

And in the rugged mountains of the Pyrenees, Basque separatists gather to discuss a new strategy - one which this time will involve negotiations rather than bombs.

All three groups of people are prepared to risk their lives in order to win a country of their own.

Nationalist struggles have a long history, but the quest for nationhood - often using the tools of violence and, like the Chechens, enduring an even greater violence - is today at flood level. This is hardly surprising. The nation-state has become the main form of human political organization. Nationalism can and does succeed - though the price can be very high.

More and more new countries are being born. The disappearance of communism alone created 20 new states to add to the existing 165 members of the United Nations.1 It would seem that our world is becoming increasingly fragmented into smaller and smaller nation-states, built around a common language, religion or creed. So the nations who have been hoping and battling for recognition for decades - or sometimes even centuries - have some justification for intensifying their struggles for a state of their own.

Motivations may vary, but in a world characterized by a 'crisis of ideologies', this resurgence of nationalism is hardly surprising. The demise of traditional belief-systems, including the communist one, has left a feeling of hopelessness and chaos. This makes the siren call to 'national identity' all the sweeter. To claim such an identity is to locate oneself in the world.

Imagined communities

So what is this elusive 'national identity'? Is it inherent in each of us, or an artificial creation? Is it true that 'a man [sic] must have a nationality as he must have a nose and two ears'?2 Benedict Anderson, in a fascinating study, defined a national community as an 'imagined community'. It is 'imagined because members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.'3 Neither language, nor ethnicity nor religion, he argues, are sufficiently held in common to explain what a 'nation' really is.

Nationalism, then, 'is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness; it invents nations where they do not exist.'2 Politicians are adept at planting such inventions or imaginings in the minds of their people, especially in times of loss or crisis or change. National liberation movements in Africa during the 1950s and 1960s needed to re-invent themselves as nations in order to shake off the shackles of colonialism. As Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia put it at the time: 'Our aim has been to create genuine nations from the sprawling artefacts the colonialists carved out.' In 1958 Jacques Rabemananjara, the Malagasy nationalist, made another fine distinction: 'One thing's certain, in today's political vocabulary the word nationalism means, generally, the unanimous movement of coloured peoples against Western domination. What does it matter if the word doesn't really describe the phenomenon which we like to apply to it? What fired the activists was never an imagined spectacle of the beauties of the nation-state, but the promise that the coming of the nation-state would strike away the chains of foreign rule and all that these had meant in social and moral deprivation.'4

'Nationalism has helped turn the clock back in Bosnia. Here in Tuzla horses have replaced cars, standpipes have replaced taps, but people still retain their multi-ethnic dream'. (picture)

Another way of helping to create an 'imagined community' is to use the past to shore up the present. Rooting the community in former glories - imagined or not - helps foster a spirit of optimism in the present. Thus Simón Bolivar in Colombia, Juan and Evita Peron in Argentina, Jawarharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi in India, are all used as icons on which to hang the emotions of current nationalisms. In former Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic´ linked old stories about Croat atrocities with promises of Serbian greatness to fill the emotional and economic hole left by Tito's death. The ultra-right nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky continually harks back to Russia's former greatness to harness current discontent. It is often thus: one ideology of repression replaces another.

Banal nationalism

But the spirit of 'nation' is also kept alive by the stuff of everyday life. The sociologist Michael Billig has a term for this: 'banal nationalism'. It is the nationalism of flags - waved and unwaved; of national anthems; of rousing language ('our country' or 'our nation'); of processions and celebrations to mark national days or battlefield heroics shrouded in the mists of time.5

Banal nationalism is the lingua franca that underpins our conscious and unconscious identity with nation. From Washington to Warsaw, it is the fodderon which the media and politicians so eagerly feed.

In times of crisis it can easily be turned into what Billig calls 'hot nationalism' - the rallying-cry that sends armies to war, or inspires separatists to struggle against insuperable odds. For the politician, having an enemy on whom to turn the guns diverts attention from domestic pain - as both Margaret Thatcher and George Bush found to their considerable advantage in the Falklands/Malvinas and Gulf Wars.

A victory gives your nation kudos. This is why war and bloodshed, conflict and death always play a special role in nationalist iconography. It is also a reason why women, as non-warriors and thus second-class citizens, are excluded from nationalist thinking - though of course they may support nationalist struggles. 'As a woman,' wrote Virginia Woolf, 'I have no country. As a woman, my country is the world.'

Nationalism is an ideology which shuts other people out; which defines 'Us' against 'Them'. To call yourself Australian or Chilean or Sri Lankan is to draw a psychological as well as a physical boundary around yourself and those who claim the same national identity. The fact that 'We' are inside that boundary, or border, necessarily means that 'They' are outside it. And woe betide 'Them' - be they across the water, or within 'our' country but different from 'us' in creed, origin or skin colour - if they seem to threaten our imagined community. We will show no mercy in the defence of 'our' nation.


Of course not all conflict is based on national identity. And neither is all nationalism rooted in ethnicity. Despite such preconceptions, less than ten per cent of all states in the United Nations consist mainly of one ethnic group. Most are polyethnic - Cameroon, for example, has 124 different languages and dialects, 4 different religions and over 200 separate 'tribal' groupings. Many have several large ethnic groups and some - Malaysia, Nigeria, Belgium and Canada among them - are divided between two main ethnic groups.

Nationalist struggles may draw their unity from a common oppression by a more powerful state, but in essence they still address 'imagined communities'. What binds them together are those beliefs that their leaders wish to emphasize as much as any real bonds, ethnic or otherwise: 'Collective memory is usually very selective memory, as likely to be myth as reality. What people choose to remember depends on their current situations and aspirations. Ethnic identity is powerful, but it is neither inevitable nor eternal.'1

Some categorize 'ethnic nationalism' as purely destructive, atavistic and bloody - nationalisms, as one commentator put it, with the 'brutal face' of the murderer and the rapist. Others eulogize them - the small against the large, the powerless against the powerful, peasants against kings, David against Goliath. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Our opinions on this depend once again on our categorization into 'Us' and 'Them'. We like to think that 'we' are patriotic and 'they' are nationalistic. Or we divide nationalisms into Civic virtue and Ethnic vice. Yet the price of civic nationalism can often be the marginalization of ethnic minorities. And nationalism may also bring to the fore the best as well as the worst in people: 'In an age when it is so common for progressive cosmopolitan in-tellectuals to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.'6

So what then is all this sacrifice for? To what do the separatists, advocates of self-determination, actually aspire? The answer, more often than not, is a new country, with an independent state to crown their nation. And herein lies the supreme irony. For while separatists struggle and fight and die in order to carve out a country of their own, the 185 nation-states that already exist are growing weaker by the day.

A borderless world

The power of global capital in the form of transnational organizations and institutions has made a nonsense of national economic decision-making. Back in 1974, when Barnet and Muller wrote their classic study: Global Reach: The Power of the Multinational Corporation, they saw the writing on the wall: 'The men who run the global corporations are the first in history with the organization, technology, money and ideology to make a credible try at managing the world as an integrated economic unit...What they are demanding in essence is the right to transcend the nation-state and in the process to transform it.'7

Today, this transformation is common wisdom. Business Week in 1990 quoted W Michael Blumental, Chair of Unisys Corporation, to the effect that world corporations are becoming 'stateless'. They move factories and labs 'around the world without particular reference to national borders'.7

Capital too is free to flow in and out of the country at the whim of international stock and currency markets. The amount of money that moves around the world in a single day is more than three times what a country like Japan earns through trade in an entire year. We live in what Japanese business guru Kenichi Ohmae calls 'a borderless world' where 'nation-states have become little more than bit actors'.7 We talk of goods 'made in Britain' or 'made in Japan' or 'made in the US'. In fact, they are far more likely to have been made in Korea, assembled in Malaysia, sewn together in Taiwan and then shipped to the country where they are supposed to have been 'made'.

National governments have lost control over another crucial area of 'national' life - communications. Improved technology means that it is no longer possible for nation-states to exert strict controls over the information their citizens receive. In former Yugoslavia, for instance, people from Croatia, forbidden to write or telephone their relatives in Serbia, have been using the Internet to pass messages. In India, satellite television has brought soap operas from around the world into the homes of millions of people.

But communications and the media are dominated by a global culture which is increasingly Americanized. American English is the global language and the US sells its own culture as 'global'. A young market trader in Manila aspires to the same kinds of things as a taxi-driver in Moscow or a college student in downtown Los Angeles - Levi jeans, Coca-Cola, Western music.

Yet at the same time other groups - social, political and ethnic - are rebelling against this homogenization. As Anthony Smith, author of a number of books on nationalism, explains, these groups are using the tools of mass communications to 'create and sustain their own... social or cultural networks in opposition both to the national state and to a wider continental or global culture.' 9

Such networks are often formed as people try to wrest control from unresponsive governments. Everywhere, direct action - covered extensively by the media - is having results. Dam-building is halted by those prepared to risk their lives to save homes and livelihoods, road-building is stymied by dedicated environmentalists - and new countries are carved out by those who demand a separate national identity. New identities are being imagined.

Failure of the nation-state

The nation-state has failed its people - failed to provide affordable education and health services, failed to look after its citizens, failed even to make the impact on the world stage that those citizens expect. Perhaps its greatest failure is its chronic inability to allow its people the right to take part in the decisions which are important to them. Governments and those who run them are increasingly seen as useless, corrupt - or just very distant.

In the words of the UN's 1993 Human Development Report: 'The nation-state now is too small for the big things, and too big for the small.'10

So what of the future? What will eventually grow out of the tatters of the nation-state? The historian Eric Hobsbawm wrote in 1992 that: 'the world of the next century will be largely supranational [and] will reflect the decline of the old nation-state as an operational entity.'11 Others believe that the new entities of the twenty-first century will be based on small ethnic and tribal groupings.

There is no doubt that change is in the air. While we now seem to be ruled by an oppressive market - rather than an oppressive state - people are increasingly challenging both, and finding ways to shape their own lives. But global problems increasingly need global and not national solutions: 'Famines, ethnic conflicts, social disintegration, terrorism, pollution and drug trafficking can no longer be confined within national borders.'10 The nation-state is being squeezed from above by the forces of international capital and from below by the demands of its own citizens.


There are options other than a world of global supranational capitalism or total fragmentation. Decentralization may be an alternative to separatism. And technology can be a tool for positive change - for those who can afford it. Links are being made beyond national boundaries. People in former Yugoslavia who are against Serbian aggression are using the new document which outlines the Constitution for a Scottish Parliament in order to establish the basis for their own kind of multi-ethnic state. Even in the United States: 'The great majority of Americans increasingly have more in common with their counterparts in other countries than with the putatively American wing of a global ruling class... Americans may begin looking past national boundaries for alliances, especially with those just beyond our borders, physical (Mexico, Canada), or psychic (Western Europe).'12

We are at present, as the poet Matthew Arnold put it, 'wandering between two worlds/ One dead, the other unable to be born'. We know the old world of nation-states is dying. We have a chance to assist in the birth of the new one, to give it shape beyond the parochialism of nation, ethnicity, race or class. Let us be secure enough in our own imagined communities to recognize the value of other peoples' imaginings. Let us take that chance to create a world that is based on democracy, decentralism and tolerance - a world where a new internationalism is a real possibility.


A Nation is a group of people from the same region of origin who share a common history. They probably share a similar culture and tradition and may speak the same language.

A State is the main political authority within a sharply defined territory. But it is an abstract idea since it is independent of rulers - who can be replaced - and of the people who live there. Its authority often rests on a written Constitution.

A Nation-State (which we also call a country) in theory assumes that everyone living there belongs to the same nation. In practice this is generally no longer the case. The nation-state forms the basis of international political divisions. There are currently 185 nation-states. At least 15 of these have been created since 1990.

Nationalism is the ideology which holds the nation and the state together. It takes many forms but often involves a semi-mystical attachment to the 'homeland'.

1 States of disarray: the social effects of globalization (UNRISD 1995)
2 Nations and Nationalism Ernest Gellner (Basil Blackwell 1983)
3 Imagined Communities Benedict Anderson (Verso 1991)
4 The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the curse of the nation-state Basil Davidson (James Currey 1992)
5 Banal Nationalism Michael Billig (Sage 1995)
6 Motherlands: Black women's writing from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia edited by Susheila Nasta (Women's Press 1991)
7 When Corporations Rule the World David C Korten (Earthscan 1995)
8 The End of the Nation-state: The rise of regional economies Kenichi Ohmae (Harper Collins 1995)
9 Nations and Nationalism in a global era Anthony D Smith (Polity Press 1995)
10 Human Development reports 1993 and 1994 (United Nations Development Programme)
11 Nations and Nationalism since 1780 Eric Hobsbawm (Cambridge University Press 1992)
12 Ellen Willis 'The postnational prospect' in Village Voice, Nov 28 1996 p 21.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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