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Culture and power essay question: Nationalism

Nationalism embodies “the pathology of modern developmental history” (Nairn 1977:359), an effective and enduring form of political expression which commands “profound emotional legitimacy” (Anderson 1983:4). It has been a distinctive feature in modern political movements, particularly, in the formation of post-colonial nation-building, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and violent separatist movements, civil wars and genocides across the world. This essay will discuss theory of nationalism as a political doctrine and a cultural artifact and in relation to the nation and state, exploring by its nature it is a powerful form of political expression in the modern world.

The concept of nationalism, and the related phenomena, of nation and nationality has elided socio-political theoretical scrutiny. It is generally regarded as a self-evident characteristic of the world; to paraphrase Seton-Watson, the nation exists and has existed but as yet no one has given a scientific definition (Seton-Watson 1977:5). Since the 1960’s, the focus of Anthropology has shifted from understanding ethnicity to nationhood and nationalism. Anthropology and nationalism are modes of “cultural self-conciousness” (Spencer 1990:283) which share an “intellectual history” (Spencer 2006:391), both tending towards assumptions of the world as bounded cultural units. As a consequence Anthropology can be said to have contributed to nationalist ideologies and cultural stereotyping, exemplified in the use of ethnographies in Sri Lankan Tamil nationalism (Spencer 1990). Paradoxically, as people increasingly recognize the fluidity and arbitrariness of cultural boundaries as recent historical imaginings, the more people emphasize national distinctions (Spencer 1990:283).

Nationalism is a principle that the “political and national unit should be congruent” (Gellner 1983:1), that people can be divided into separate bounded entities and ruled by their ‘own kind’, it is defined by the sentiment aroused when this principle is violated or fulfilled, and nationalist movements are actuated by this sentiment (ibid). The concept is a political doctrine about the character, rights and obligations of the nation, and a political movement designed to protect or further the interests of the nation (Seton-Watson 1977:3). Practically, it encompasses several paradoxes: firstly, historians ideas of nations objective modernity vs. nationalists ideas of subjective antiquity; secondly, the apparent universality of nationalism vs. the particularity of its manifestations; and thirdly, nationalisms political power vs. the emptiness of philosophical discourse (Anderson 1983:5).

The dominance and pervasiveness of nationalism in the modern world requires specific social conditions (attributable only to industrial and post industrial society): normative political centralization, cultural homogeneity based on ideas of high culture and a monolithic state controlled education system, mass schooling and literacy, a fluid and mobile population, and unmediated sub-groupings (Gellner 1983:137-141). Thus it is a recent phenomena rooted in imagined antiquity, created in the late eighteenth century through a “spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces”(Anderson 1983:4); particularly the “convergence of capitalism and print technology” (Anderson 1983:49), its dissemination; increased literacy and cultural reproduction created a space for imagined communities and the modern nation.

Anderson states that the nation is “an imagined political community…both inherently limited and sovereign” (Anderson 1983:6) and generally accepted as a combination of objective (cultural homogeneity, language) and subjective criteria (voluntaristic recognition of mutual obligations, loyalty and rights) (Gellner 1983:7/53) (this is a workable definition and can be faulted on both sets of criteria, the former for it ambiguity and the later as a tautology). Although often assumed, nationality is not an inherent human trait, it is possible to imagine groups with no nationality, no nation, and no state (Gellner 1983:6). The nation and state are contingent and independent; “Nationalism engenders nations” (find ref) not the reverse, yet the state- as the agency within society which possesses the monopoly of legitimate violence” (Gellner 1983:3)- is a necessary but not a sufficient pre-condition of nationalism.

Political movements employ nationalism first in the struggle for independence- in creating a nation-state- second in the building of national unity of all groups and individuals that see themselves as part of the nation, and in some cases nationalism is used to build a nation within a newly formed independent state (Seton-Watson 1977:3). This is clearly exemplified in Indian nationalism: formed in the intellectuals prior to independence, yet the ethnically mixed territory generated ethno nationalism and a violent separatist movement between Hindus and Muslims culminating in the India-Pakistan partition of 1947. Post independence spread nationalism to the masses in both states aiming for political stability.

Regardless of inequalities within a nation there is a sense of “deep horizontal comradeship” (Anderson 1983:7) this emotional attachment and fraternity is what makes people willing to die for their nation, and is reinforced through nationalist cultural reproduction, invention and manipulation. As Hobsbawm suggests, nations and nationalism claim to be rooted in antiquity, often inventing historic continuity through imagining, reinventing or adapting traditions and symbolism to establish social cohesion, legitimise institutions and authority, and inculcate social norms, beliefs and values (Hobsbawm 1983:4-9). The history in the ideology of a nation is selected, written and popularized, deliberately and innovatively, socially engineered (Hobsbawm 1983:13). For instance, the cultural reproduction of rural Sinhala culture by Wickramasinghe “the tank, the temple, and the paddy field” (Spencer 1990:287), reinforced by British colonial administrations, and by a teacher, affects nationals own understanding of their culture and relationship with their environment (Spencer 1990:285-287).

Nationalist cultural products are political tools used to create cohesion among the nation and legitimise their cause. Symbols such as the national anthem, emblem, or flag, openly proclaim a nations autonomy, sovereignty and identity, reflecting the “entire background thought and culture of a nation” (Hobsbawm 1983:11). National anthems connect people to their ancestral past and the unisonality connects them with other imagined nationals (Anderson 1983:132). Emblems personify and idolize the nation, for example the American image of ‘Uncle Sam needs you’; and are manipulated by political leaders to mobilize the masses, as in the image of the hearth in former Yugoslavia. National flags are the most significant form of identity and legitimacy, even pirates have the skull and cross bones flag, to identify and legitimise their limited and sovereign rule. It is interesting when a nation has two flags as in the case of Australia, political tension is noticeable on Australia Day (26th of January), also called ‘Invasion Day’ and ‘Survival Day’ by Aborigines, where colonial Australians celebrate their ‘settlement’ and the Aborigines their ‘invasion’, and use flags symbolize their opposing nationalisms.

Nationalism is a particular kind of cultural artifact, it endures because it can be modulated, and transplanted into places of different spatial, geographical, ideological and political domains to variable degrees of awareness (Anderson 1983:4). The United Nations admits new nations all the time, many of which define themselves in terms of the national, grounded in “a territorial and social space inherited from the pre-revolutionary past” (Anderson 1983:2), and exemplified in its name for instance the Democratic republic of Congo or the Republic of Ireland. This is a recent phenomena heavily linked with new nationalism, the nation-states that reflect the pre-national dynasties such as the United Kingdom, clearly express their non national ideas even though they too are highly nationalist. The principle of nationalism could theoretically apply in a “universalistic principle” (Gellner 1983:1) yet most leaders wouldn’t and couldn’t assert a world hegemonic nationality.

Nations are not all territorially bounded, some are complicated intermixed entities; and because there are more potential nations than there are space for autonomous political units, a “territorial political unit can only become, ethnically homogeneous...if it either kills, expels, or assimilates all non-nationals”(Gellner 1983:2). Verdery (1998) highlights how in former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Bloc ‘belonging’ is created through property and citizenship, which reconfigures the politics of inclusion and exclusion, through national and transnational processes.

There are two fundamental issues in the formation of new nation-states in territories of heterogeneous populations, as in Serbia and Croatia; firstly “bureaucratic ethnic cleansing”(Verdery 1998:295) through constitutional nationalism, deterritorialises nationalism and creates ethnic democracy and sovereignty through privileging citizenship and property rights, for ethnic nationals and émigrés over ‘foreigner’ minorities within the nation (Verdery 1998:297). Secondly “full-fledged physical…ethnic cleansing” (Verdery 1998:301) on a local kin and community level, to ensure territorial political votes, reinforced by political nationalizing of the notion of ‘hearth’ to symbolize “property, community, citizenship, and patriotism” (ibid). In this region transnational democratization invigorated ethno nationalism already institutionalized by soviet-style national conciousness (Verdery 1998:293) turning nationalism into ‘political capital’, in symbols and legislation.

In conclusion, nationalism is a modern political doctrine because of particular historical conditions. It is socially engineered through state cultural reproduction and manipulation of ideas, traditions symbols and culture, in order to create political mobilization, national cohesion, superiority and fraternity among an imagined community and control inclusion and exclusion. National conciousness doesn’t develop smoothly and is difficult to define, yet it is clear that it is an enduring political form of expression precisely its culturally constructed roots and has effective power to control and mobilize large groups and territorial areas. The more nationalist ideology is scrutinized the more it seams intensely imagined. It is highly unlikely that nationalism will not continue to monopolize political expressions in current or future nation-states.

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