What is the value of nationalism in an increasingly international global climate?

By Thizer Graham.

As I sit here at my desk, world map sprawled out in front of me with its borders confidently marking out oddly shaped national territories, all neatly labelled and colour coded, I consider that it is extremely easy to assume that all of these nations are a naturally occurring phenomenon. As naturally occurring as the land formations and vast oceans I see in front of me on that same map. We are taught not to question the difference. But when we picture the real world, when we think back to the last time we were in an aeroplane, flying thousands of miles above the earth, we cant recall actually seeing any tangible, naturally occurring barriers dividing the nations. This is because nations are not a natural occurrence, and the borders between them do not happen by accident. In his book Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (1983), Benedict Anderson outlines that it is important that we remember that nations are fundamentally “fabrications[…] the nation is primarily an idea.” In essence, they are “an imagined political community”(p.6). As Anderson points out, borders are man-made constructions and therefore nations are the subsequent ‘imagined communities’ that exist within these borders. With this in mind, I will be exploring and further expanding on the transience of these concepts. It is important to note here that when I refer to ‘nationalism’, I am not referring to the authentic sense of community and comradeship that develops between people who have come together naturally. I refer specifically to the greater artificial communities forged via the construction of national territories.

Most citizens of a nation will never have any awareness of each others’ existence, however, the mutual sense of national belonging that nationalism incites is extremely powerful. In his book Beginning Postcolonialism, John McLeod (2000) comments that nations “concoct a unique sense of shared history and common origins of its people [and] stimulate the people’s sense that they are the rightful owners of a specific land”(p.69). The historical narrative is a fundamental device used in nationalism, as it explains the nation’s origins and constructs a national identity, linking the current nation to previous nations of national subjects. It is emotive, and citizens are encouraged to take pride in the endeavours and battles fought in their name, despite the fact that in actuality there probably isn’t any correlation between them and these events whatsoever. Equally, national anthems and flags are produced as a focal point around which national pride is incited and social conformity is covertly encouraged. A national culture must be ceaselessly performed and therefore, national citizens are the subjects of national discourses,  although I will elaborate on this later. Also, as one of the most powerful and significant modes of socio-political organisation in the modern world, this sense of national ownership that McLeod highlights here is paramount to the success of a nation.

Academics in the field generally concur that the concept of ‘nation’ is western in origin. As Mc Leod explains, it “[emerged] with the growth of Western capitalism and industrialism and was a fundamental component of imperialist expansion.”(p.68). Control and social order were indeed necessary during the imperialist period in order to maintain command over all of the newly conquered territories. Nationalism’s influence relies on its ability to unite those existing within its borders, and in addition to constructing a national identity, this is done primarily via nationalist representations of ‘otherness’. Every nationalist definition of identity is defined in relation to something else, or someone who is the ‘other’.  

McLeod comments on this process of ‘othering’ by stating that “the placing of imaginative borders between nations is fundamental to their existence... Nations place borders that separate the people ‘within’ from different peoples outside.”(p.74). Despite the obvious positives of social unity, McLeod outlines here, the central problem with nationalism specifically. As much as it claims to promote unity, it is exclusive by definition, depending almost entirely on this exclusivity in order to function. For example, in unjust practices such as colonialism, it is commonplace for the perceived ‘other’ to be subjected to exploitation and discrimination amongst other things, however the ruling power will often justify their actions via nationalist pragmatics. They justify their actions “as a liberal, morally just, crusade to conquer the perceived ignorance and savagery of others”(p.105). Much of colonialism was justified by establishing this fear of the ‘other’ within society in order to facilitate their capitalist agendas, and this narrative is still a prevalent form of manipulation in today’s culture.

So despite being shrouded by myths of inclusivity and collectivity, nationalism is founded upon this principal that individuals must meet certain criteria in order to be included. Despite this however, although it successfully marginalises those outside individuals who don’t qualify, the homogeneous, uniform society that it attempts to create can never be realised. Total homogeneity is an impossible and unobtainable goal, as humanity is diverse, and the scale of that diversity is vast. This is true not just for our outward appearance, but also with regards to our ideologies and values etc and therefore nationalism’s very foundations are utterly flawed. Our natural diversity is also paradoxically amplified by nationalism due to the fact that the world’s borders were constructed with no real consideration of the naturally occurring socio geographical organisation of like-minded communities beforehand. This has resulted of even more diversity within national communities which nationalism is trying to stamp out. Even if nationalism was somehow able to create a totally unvaried, characterless society via discrimination and segregation, today’s cheap and easy travel culture, our ease and freedom of movement globally would make this kind of society unmaintainable and irrelevant.

Nationalism’s exclusivity is also fundamentally flawed due to the performative aspect of its national culture. As mentioned earlier, the nation depends on its subjects ‘performing’ the appointed culture, and this fickle performative aspect actually enables the marginalised to participate. People such as the working class, women, those of a different ethnicity/race and migrants are able to ‘intervene’ in the performance and challenge these exclusive representations with diverse narratives of their own. In his book, DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation(1990), Homi K. Bhabha comments that we are hence “confronted with the nation split within itself, articulating the heterogeneity of its population”(p.148). This split forces the alienated nation to confront its own myths of origin and homogeneity, fragmenting the very foundations of the nationalist narrative. Although national discourses are powerful divisive tools, there can never be any one, coherent, common narrative through which a nation and its people can be adequately captured.

I alluded earlier to the origins of nationalism in relation to its significance during colonialism. The organization of these nations, the mapping out of national territories via the construction of borders, not only characterised the colonial period, but the ramifications of post-colonialism were enduring. Such clearly defined territorial borders had not existed prior to colonialism, and in calling for national liberation, many nations were working with the map of the world drawn by the colonisers. For example, at the Berlin Conference of 1885, the Western powers gathered in order to divide Africa between themselves, illustrating a map of the continent with copious capricious borders. These new colonial borders outlining the new ‘nations’ ignored the Africans’ own map of the continent and reorganised their political space. They divided indigenous tribal lands and bound African peoples and tribes who were in conflict or did not share any natural sense of comradeship. Imperialists often had the express political aim of dividing cultural entities for greater ease of domination.

Because of the arbitrary organisation of national borders, which ignores naturally occurring communities in order to facilitate the coloniser’s plutocratic agendas, many newly independent nations have struggled, with some even erupting in civil wars. McLeod comments on the liberation of nations in his book stating, “Many [newly liberated] nations have struggled with the international differences that threaten the production of national unity… This does not simply reflect a political failure on the part of the newly independent nations, but perhaps reveals a problem inherent in the concept of the nation itself”(p.103). This is because those nations were never naturally unified to begin with. The inherent problem with nationalism is that it is artificial. Nevertheless, lingering nationalist narratives like to use these failures in order to justify colonialism, claiming that the nations they forced upon the people are now ‘incapable’ of ruling themselves, and were better off being ruled by colonial powers.

Nigeria serves as a good example of this post-independence struggle. It inherited its borders from Britain in 1914, with its construction consequently resulting in an intersection of many different African peoples and ethnic/religious groups. Due to this, instilling a sense of national unity between those within the territorial borders has been problematic, and has lead to bloody conflicts in recent years. In 1966, six years post-independence, two opposing military coups went to war, resulting in bloodshed and enforced migrations, and in 1967 the eastern region separated itself and declared itself the republic of Biafra. The civil war continued until 1970 when the Biafran forces surrendered and after one million people had been killed. Two more military coups followed in 1975 and 1976, and since, the region has been battling between elected governments and military rule. 

Equally, the Syrian civil war has become a prevalent news feature, with ceaseless media coverage focusing on those escaping persecution, resulting in the mass exodus that is the current European refugee crisis. Much of the mainstream coverage has been constructed in accordance with colonial nationalist narratives, painting the refugees as an alien ‘other’ who should be feared. Not much however, has been reported in regards to the cause of the problem; arguably the most essential part of the story. Many of these accounts are specifically designed to evoke widespread fear throughout not only Europe, but the entire first world, depicting the refugees as threats to our national security and homogeneity. This nationalist mediation has been extremely effective in its attempts to preserve social uniformity at the sole expense of the refugees, who are losing their lives on a mass scale.

The modern nation of Syria’s was founded by colonial France in 1920 at the San Remo conference. Syria was divided into three separate regions, with the Druze inhabiting the south and the Alawis settling on the coast. Due to the coalescence of these opposing groups, numerous power struggles and civil wars erupted, and Syria maintained an almost permanent state of unrest. Finally in September 1936, France and Syria negotiated a treaty of independence, however this never materialized, as France refused to pass the legislation, nor would they relinquish their military and economic dominance. Despite putting increasing pressure on the French in 1941 for their emancipation, it was not until 1944 that it was granted, though the slow pace of French withdrawal lead to intense social unrest. Eventually, in 1946, Syrian nationalist groups forced the French to evacuate, with Syria securing official independence on 17 April 1946. Disastrously, Syrian politics since independence has been characterized by disharmony and mutiny. Again, there were no great, authentic unifying qualities between the subjects of the artificial nation. Recurrent upheavals, military brutality, civil rebellion and riots dominated the 1960s, and since, Syria has been void of any real or consistent leadership. Currently, Syria has become an inhabitable war zone, yet although some of the rebel forces are well intended and were fighting for democracy against the tyrannical Assad regime, others such as Isis famously are not.

Despite all of the promise that colonial emancipation incites, the lasting effects and implications of colonialism are not as easily overcome. For many, the term ‘nation’ connotes liberty and universal suffrage, however it is complicit in autocratic forms of government and supremacy. In his book, Benedict Anderson alludes to this by stating that, “The nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past few centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings” (p.7).  Decolonisation is progressive, and should be revered as a wholly positive and constructive global development, yet the movement was somewhat doomed from the start, as the newly independent nations are still operating within the constraints of the nationalist discourse. They still aren’t truly free.

In light of the above examples, I find myself asking how productive the myth of the nation is in the decolonised world. It may well have been a valuable tool for the empires during colonialism, but how valuable is it in the present day? In many cases, its exclusive nature incites marginalisation, oppression and even xenophobia, and although the cultural spaces that national borders have created can be celebrated to an extent, we must remember that nations are primarily “fabrications.” We do not have to be constrained by its more negative facets. We, as responsible and rational humans, should be able to reject nationalism’s rigid idealisation of homogeneity, uniformity and subordination. “In a world of instant mass communications, multinational capitalism and global travel, archaic notions of nationalism and national identity seem increasingly anachronistic”(McLeod, p. 83). The world is increasingly becoming more international, and nations more multinational, and therefore diversity and multiplicity should be celebrated. Most importantly, we certainly should not turn away those who seek refuge from persecution because we are too fearful of threatening our archaic, artificial national narratives.


Selected Reading

Anderson, Benedict. (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Bhabha, Homi K. (1990) DissemiNation: Time, Narrative and the Margins of the Modern Nation. London: Routledge.

McLeod, John. (2000) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.