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[image, unknown] New Internationalist Issue 277

The material that follows has been provided by New Internationalist

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The imperial armies of Ancient Rome and China conquered in the name of the emperor not the nation. In Europe in medieval times ordinary people owed their allegiance not to a state but to a feudal lord. Wars were fought between local aristocrats - like the Duke of Bourgogne or the Earl of Warwick - not kings or queens. In other parts of the world, societies were divided along cultural or ethnic lines, but again, borders as such were fluid and ever-changeable.


The business of nation-building has always been a bloody one. Feudal lords were forced to give up their regional autonomy by kings who wanted to rule over larger areas. It took the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) to disentangle England from France, and the murder of thousands of Albigensians in the South of France to really establish France as a nation. Nation-states finally became a reality in North America and Western Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century and in Latin America soon after.

Creating a nation-state was one thing; making the people who lived there believe in it was quite another. As writer and former Prime Minister of Piedmont, Massimo d'Azeglio, pointed out when the nation-state of Italy was created in 1861: 'We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.'

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'As a woman, I have no country,'
wrote Virginia Woolf.

In most of the new nation-states women and the working class were not regarded as citizens. Those without property could not vote and they were unable to stand for Parliament. Many nation-states built their identity through displays of military prowess and often by means of military conflict - from which women were also excluded. Leaders spoke of 'the Motherland' but nationalism was essentially a means of co-operation between moneyed patriarchies. As the vote was extended to women and to the working class, it became necessary for those patriarchies to be able to manipulate national identity in order to maintain loyalty and control.


'The principle of Sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation: no body of men [sic], no individual, can express authority that does not emanate from it,' asserted the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1792.

American Independence and the French Revolution created new national models which relied heavily on written constitutions, national flags and anthems. They also introduced a new concept of democratic citizenship - one which stirred ordinary people to revolt against the monarchy. Popular revolts in Europe were paralleled in the New World - in 1791 Toussaint L'Ouverture led an insurrection of black slaves that produced the independent republic of Haiti in 1804. Patriotism became the ultimate loyalty, supposedly superseding all other ties.


As European empires expanded to the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the new rulers not only imposed colonial rule. They also brought their own model of the nation-state which was alien to most of the indigenous populations. The colonial powers divided up the world along straight lines which separated village from village and family from family in the name of imperial allegiance. Quite different - and sometimes antagonistic - peoples were enclosed within the same boundaries. Muslims and Hindus in India, Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda were played off against each other, and the peoples of those nations are still paying a bloody price for imperial nation-building.

As empires shrank and newly independent states declared their nationhood in the twentieth century, they did so - regardless of political credo - in the manner of those who had colonized them and in traditional style with guarded borders, flags and national anthems. Inevitably their power was resisted by those with other ethnic, religious or pan-nationalist loyalties.


Of all the main political credos, nationalism has been the most successful. The emergence of national economies regulated by the state combined people's sense of economic security with their sense of geographic place. This has proved to be a potent blend to capture hearts and minds. In Russia and China communism not only failed to subvert nationalism but was taken over by it. Nationalism - often ethnic, sometimes religious - provides a convenient and believable credo for people trying to root themselves in the world. It is something to believe in, to belong to. And it suits those in power very well. It is easy to manipulate. It is a convenient tool for rulers to be able to whip up support as Slobodan Milosevic did with Serbian nationalism. American support for George Bush rose from 50 to 90 per cent during the Gulf War.


Today the whole world - with the exception of Antarctica - is divided into nation-states and criss-crossed by boundaries. National identity has become as much a part of our psychological make-up as gender, race or class. The major conflicts being fought in the world today are almost all struggles to form new national identities - often based supposedly on race or ethnicity.

The irony here is that of the 185 nation-states there are perhaps only a handful which do not include as part of their make-up large 'minority' groups. Nation-states today are essentially multicultural which is why separatist movements are often forced to create identities from the past and resurrect former supposed glories in order to create new 'imagined communities'.


But the story does not end here. Though the number of nation-states is still on the increase - as countries like former Yugoslavia and the USSR have splintered -their control is being eroded. Many of the original functions of the nation-state - welfare, defence, state ownership of production, railways, and crucially, communications - are either in the hands of the international community or have been privatized. Giant multinational companies and international banks bestride the world stage. To quote the UN's Human Development Report (1993): 'The nation-state now is too small for the big things and too big for the small.' At the same time, ordinary people have less faith than before in the trappings and structures of the state - the monarchy or presidency, parliament and politics. Where the state collapses - Somalia, the Lebanese civil war, Sri Lanka - local warlords are re-emerging. The wheel has come full circle.

©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

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