Liah Greenfeld. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.
The Nationalism Debate
The year 2004 marked an important landmark for the academic community dedicated to the study of nationalism. It was the tenth anniversary of the establishment of the Gellner Memorial Lecture on Nationalism at the London School of Economics, itself home to the first organization devoted to the research and teaching on the subject, ASEN—the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, founded 15 years ago by Anthony D. Smith and his students. Anthony Smith was a student of Ernest Gellner; Ernest Gellner was one of the two scholars who inaugurated the new era in the study of nationalism in 1983, when Gellner’s book Nations and Nationalism appeared simultaneously with Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson. When Smith’s The Ethnic Origins of Nations was published in 1986, the conceptual framework which was to characterize this new era was in place.
In this framework the question of the relationship between nationalism and modernity occupied the central place. in his 1986 book, Smith charted the map of the emerging field. The terrain was divided between the dominant ‘modernist’ position, represented paradigmatically by Gellner and Anderson, and the opposing ‘primordialist’ one, represented, with some reservations, by Smith himself. According to the ‘modernists,’ nations and nationalism were by-products of various, usually economic, processes of modernization. The ‘primordialists,’ in distinction, held that they were always with us, phenomena of the primary order and forms of association and sentiment natural to men. In the first paragraph of the first chapter, raising the crucial question and fittingly entitled Are nations modern?,’ Smith stated the logical possibilities. ‘Why are men and women willing to die for their countries?’ he asked. ‘Why do they identify so strongly with their nations? Is national character and nationalism universal? Or is the “nation” a purely modern phenomenon and a product of strictly modern social conditions? And what, in any case, do we mean by the concepts of the “nation” and “national identity”?’ (Smith 1986: 6). These possibilities were, therefore, only two: either ‘national character and nationalism were universal,’ or ‘the “nation” was a purely modern phenomenon and a product of strictly modern social conditions.’
The theme of the ASEN convention in April 2004, held in conjunction with the tenth Gellner Memorial Lecture, on the one hand, and the celebration of Anthony Smith’s career on the occasion of his retirement, was ‘The Nationalism Debate,’ and the debate was the one between ‘modernists’ and ‘primordialists.’ The latter, in the years that passed, changed their name to ‘ethno-symbolists,’ but did not modify their position. The question of relationship between modernity and nationalism has remained the central theoretical question in the field.
Scholars who studied nationalism in the new era came from most of the social science disciplines. Though there was hardly any interest in the subject among them before the early 1980s, the field soon became very fashionable. The specific reason for that was the political turmoil in, and then the dissolution of, the Soviet Union, followed naturally by the disappearance of the ‘discipline’ of Sovietology. Since Sovietologists were quite numerous, especially among political scientists, and especially in the United States, this academic disaster robbed many a PhD of an expertise and left them without a disciplinary home. Since nationalism emerged as a factor of dramatic importance in the political transformation of the Soviet Union, many ex-Soviet specialists, who previously disregarded it, turned to the study of nationalism. A new association was formed among the members of the dissolved academic community—the Association for the Study of Nationalities (ASN), which would meet at the Harriman Institute of Columbia University in New York. At first it focused exclusively on the former Soviet nationalities, but later has expanded into other areas. The programme of its ninth annual meeting, in April 2004, one week before the ASN convention in London, ran to 64 pages; it must have brought together hundreds of people. It also for the first time devoted several sessions, prominently advertised in the programme, to theoretical issues. Though, because of the historical circumstances in which the field was shaped, the majority of the scholars engaged in the study of nationalism by this time were Americans, the conceptual framework in which they worked was the British one of ‘the nationalism debate’ revolving around Smith’s question Are nations modern?.’ Indeed, the central theoretical session at the meetings was devoted precisely to this debate between ‘modernists’ (who, in the American context, were renamed ‘constructivists’) and ‘primordialists’ (who retained their original name). Their positions were identical to those of their respective counterparts in London, and, in fact, the same scholar, Walker Connor, was both the eminent elder ‘primordialist’ in New York and the eminent elder ‘ethno-symbolist’ in London.2
The traditional juxtaposition of the ‘modernist’ and ‘primordialist’ answers to the question Are nations modern?’ may create the impression that one is dealing with two different theories of nationalism, modernity and social reality in general. Such an impression would be wrong: a profound agreement exists between the two camps in regard to the nature of these phenomena. Despite obvious differences in emphases, which lead to certain differences in terminology, both ‘modernists’ and ‘primordialists’ (that is, ‘constructivists’ and ‘ethno-symbolists’) subscribe to the structuralist—materialist paradigm of human society, essentially viewing humanity as a product of biological evolution, and modernity and nationalism, in particular, as products of later stages of this evolutionary process, conceptualized as an interaction between various ‘social’ (higher biological) forces. The biologistic assumptions behind this view are rarely stated explicitly (although they are by such radical ‘primordialists’ as Pierre van der Berghe (1967, 1987), who identify as ‘socio-biologists’; the foundational text of the structuralist—materialist paradigm, The German Ideology by Karl Marx, is also rather explicit), but a close reading inevitably reveals them. The general argument runs like this: the specifically human evolution, at the beginning of which ‘man’ emerges with all his/her productive (inborn) capacities, proceeds by predetermined (presumably biologically) stages—for instance, feudal and bourgeois, or agrarian and industrial—each of which corresponds to the development of a particular capacity—for instance, tool-making. Such development necessarily modifies the physical environment and, therefore, its constraints on the organism, which, in turn, prompts the development of another capacity, and so on and so forth, until we reach the stage of capitalism, that is, modernity. Everything significant occurs on the level of the group: the individual has no influence on the process. The group is a natural (that is, biological) formation, and in the later stages of human evolution groups become increasingly complex. The nature of the group is reflected in such superstructural (causally secondary) formations as one’s culture, consciousness and identity; alternatively, belonging to a group gives one a culture, a consciousness and an identity. A nation is a group, corresponding to a late stage of human evolution; national identity, national consciousness, nationalism are cultural forms corresponding to this group. (For an analysis of the quasi-biological reasoning behind the dominant social science paradigm and, specifically, the work of Gellner and Anderson on nationalism, see Greenfeld 2005a).
It is in regard to this point that differences between the ‘modernist’ and ‘primordialist’ positions on the relationship between modernity and nationalism arise. ‘Modernists,’ while admitting that ethnic groups represent the natural source out of which nations grow, claim that the cause of this growth lies within the ‘structures of modernity’ (free markets, bureaucratic state, print media, highly evolved means of communication), themselves reflective of the very late—capitalist or industrial—stage of human development. As a result, nations and national identities have to be explained in their own (modern) context, and deep explorations of their antecedents are unnecessary. ‘Primordialists,’ in distinction, insist that, while triggered by the ‘structures of modernity,’ the growth of nations out of ethnic groupings is a natural process, realizing the potential and unveiling the essence of ethnicity itself, and that, therefore, only the study of ethnic groups and identities can result in an adequate understanding of nations and nationalism.
The question Are nations modern?’ therefore should read: Are nations essentially modern?’—that is, Are they modern in their causes as well as in their age?’—because everyone agrees that nations are a rather recent historical phenomenon. But, since the structuralist-materialist paradigm denies the fundamental historicity of human phenomena (its absolute dependence on the context), this point of agreement seems to lack significance. the denial of a causal role to history, however, implies the denial of precisely those qualities of humanity that distinguish it from the rest of the living world, making it a reality sui generis: the essentially symbolic (that is, not material) or cultural character of this reality, and the essential autonomy of human individuals. The recognition of the distinctiveness of human reality from the rest of the (biological) reality of life makes it immediately possible to perceive a third logical possibility alongside the two listed by Smith, namely that ‘national character and nationalism are universal’ and that ‘the “nation” is a purely modern phenomenon and a product of strictly modern social conditions.’ And this possibility is that the nation is a modern phenomenon, but it is not a product of modern conditions, but instead is the very cause of modernity.
The claim that ‘nationalism is the constitutive element of modernity’ was a central proposition in the book I published in 1992. This book, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, was based on a view of human reality which presupposed exactly what the structuralist-materialist paradigm denied: namely, that human reality is essentially cultural; that it is essentially historical; and that the agent in it is the individual. In other words, it belonged to the tradition of Durkheim, Weber and Bloch, which, because of its focus on the mind and ‘mental’ phenomena, I later named ‘mental-ism.’ In the intervening years I had several occasions to spell out the argument regarding the relationship between nationalism and modernity, which may be summarized as follows (see, amongst other publications, Greenfeld 1992, 1996b, 2001, 2005c).
Modernity and Nationalism
What is modernity? The equation of the ‘modern’ with the ‘contemporary’ must be rejected at the outset as meaningless, since what was contemporary yesterday is no longer so today. This means we cannot say that modern society (or politics, or economy) is society as it exists in our time and have to go beyond pure description. We must realize that there may be societies today, which are not modern, despite the fact that they may have certain descriptive characteristics of modernity. This, in turn, leads to the rejection of the concept of ‘modernization’—that is, of the assumption that modernity is achieved gradually as a result of an incremental addition of such descriptive characteristics, and that there are, consequently, at any point in time more modern and less modern societies. Instead, we have to assume that modernity is akin to pregnancy (one is either pregnant or not; one cannot be more or less pregnant), or to being human (one is either human or not; one cannot be more or less human). As such, it is a state of being, rather than a stage of development—it is a specific form, or type, of society, and we must look for the organizing principle which creates this type (something analogous to the conception or the mutation that produces the human species)—a principle behind its descriptive characteristics.
Nevertheless, one cannot, and by no means should, avoid description altogether. There are certain features, certain structures and processes, which one implicitly recognizes as modern; one should look for what connects them together. For instance, there is the modern stratification structure—the class structure. In distinction to other stratification systems, such as the estate or the caste ones, it is fluid; its compartments are permeable; it allows for, in fact encourages, constant mobility; its unit is the individual, rather than the family; status in it is based on achievement, rather than ascription, and social positions are distributed in accordance with resources that easily transfer from family to family, such as education and wealth, instead of being determined by birth. Then there is the modern form of government—the state. It is distinguished from other forms of government, such as the medieval European kingship, royal absolutism, or the bakufu in Japan, by its impersonal character. There is also the modern economy. It differs from the economies of other social formations primarily in that the economic process, instead of taking on the shape of cycles of growth and decline, assumes the linear pattern of sustained growth (expressed, among other things, in the increasingly rapid change in the nature of economic activity with commerce replacing agriculture as the leading sector, industry replacing commerce, information technology replacing heavy industry, and so on). A similar pattern of development characterizes scientific knowledge, a product of the dominant modern epistemological approach—the rational and empirical science, and a central expression of the modern (secular) consciousness.
These features are invariably included in the check-list of characteristics, which, when full, is believed to constitute the modern package within the framework of modernization theory (see Anderson 1974; Bendix 1978; Berger et al. 1973; Black 1966; Eisenstadt 1985; Inkeles 1983; Tilly 1990; Wallerstein 1974); the names under which they are commonly presented are: social mobility; modern state, bureaucratization and centralization; industrialization or capitalism; and secularization. The currently dominant, modernist/primordialist, theory of nationalism, as I mentioned above, similarly to earlier sociological attempts to conceptualize nationalism within this framework (Deutsch 1953), views nationalism as a cultural and psychological function of the process of modernization, a superstructural product of the basic ‘objective’ structures. The emergence of nationalism is seen as tightly connected to the modern phenomenon of state-formation and as related to the trend of the secularization of culture. But almost invariably the factor truly responsible for its rise (as well as for the development of the state and secularization) is believed to be economic: nationalism is explained as a functional prerequisite or product of industrialization and capitalism.
And yet historically nationalism (the emergence of national identities and ideologies of nationalism) preceded industrialization and institutionalization of capitalism as well as the development of the state and secularization of culture. Thus, unless we resort to teleological reasoning, nationalism cannot be considered the effect of these later developments. It is far more logical to suppose that it was one of their causes. Moreover, the modernist/primordialist theory of nationalism, as well as the modernization theory more generally, is rather vague as to how the economic, political and cultural features of modernity are connected among themselves: for instance, it is unclear why capitalism or the state would require secularization (which is assumed to be a condition for nationalism). If the direction of causation is reversed, it becomes quite obvious that these central components of modernity should be related.
The considerations behind the mentalist position on the subject—thus the reversal of the direction of causation—are the following. Human social reality is culturally constructed. Consequently, a transformation in the conception of social order is necessary for the development of new forms of economic and political organization. For example, both modern economy and modern science as social institutions could only emerge in a society conceived as fundamentally egalitarian, and, therefore, one in which transition from one stratum or sector to another (social mobility) would be not only possible, but legitimate. (It is true that both capitalism and industrialization require a flexible stratification system, but they cannot call such a system into being in some mysterious way, as is assumed by many theories that view industrialization as the basic element of modernity; a flexible system of stratification emerges independently from industrialization and capitalism and makes the development of the latter possible.) A society conceived in the form of a hierarchical structure composed of hermetically closed compartments, as was the society of orders, could import capitalism and science but would not be able to produce them in the first place. Similarly, the state, which is distinguished from other, non-modern forms of political authority by its impersonal character, would not be possible unless sovereignty was separated from the person (and/or lineage) of the sovereign (or prince) and became an attribute of the community.
Both of these conditions, the egalitarian conception of the social order and, related to this, collectivization of authority, were accomplished by nationalism. Nationalism was a response of individuals affected by dysfunctions of the society of orders—the traditional structure modern society replaced—to the sense of disorder they created. Many other responses were possible; the choice of nationalism was not inevitable, but contingent. Neither, certainly not in the form it took or the pace it proceeded, was the dissolution of the old society. Instead, it was to a large extent due to the nationalist response to its dysfunction. Once chosen, nationalism accelerated the process of change, limited the possibilities of future development, and became a major factor in it. It thus both reflected and realized the grand transformation from the old order to modernity.
Nationalism, in short, is the modern culture. It is the symbolic blueprint of modern reality, the way we see, and thereby construct, the world around us, the specifically modern consciousness. The core of this consciousness is a specific image of the meaningful reality. In 2004 I asked participants at an international seminar on federalism—55 people from 32 countries on five continents—to draw me a pictogram of how they imagined their reality; they all drew the globe with people on it. These pictograms, obviously, could express only the most salient outward features of the image; nevertheless, they captured its essence. This image of meaningful reality is secular—it is limited to this, experiential, world, thereby making it, the mundane, the source of its own meaning, or ultimately meaningful; while within this world the most significant element is the people who populate it. This image is not only secular, it is fundamentally humanistic. (For a detailed discussion of the position of religion in the modern world, see Greenfeld 1996a.)
Why is this worldview called ‘nationalism’? For purely accidental, historically contingent reasons, specifically the use of the word ‘nation’—at the time meaning a small group embodying an authority in a conciliar, ecclesiastical setting, or an elite—to connote the entire population, the people, of England. This momentous linguistic event, which occurred in the early sixteenth century, helped the members of the new Henrician aristocracy to rationalize their experience of upward mobility which made no sense in the terms of, and in fact contradicted, the traditional, feudal and religious image of reality. By the same token, it symbolically elevated the mass of the population to the dignity of an elite and redefined the community of the people as both sovereign—the embodiment of supreme authority—and as a community of interchangeable individuals, each with a generalized capacity to occupy any social position, or, in other words, as fundamentally a community of equals. The word ‘nation,’ therefore, acquired its modern meaning of a sovereign people consisting of fundamentally equal individuals, while the community defined as a nation inevitably began to be restructured as such a people. It was the definition of an earthly community as sovereign which focused attention on this world and on humanity, exiling God beyond its confines and creating an essentially secular consciousness. In its turn, the secularization of the worldview reinforced the effects of the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism which between them define the modern concept of ‘nation.’
To sum up: nationalism is a fundamentally secular and humanistic consciousness based on the principles of popular sovereignty and egalitarianism. These three characteristics (secularism, egalitarianism and popular sovereignty) are present in every specific case of nationalism. Modern culture, more generally, is essentially nationalistic in the sense that it has at its core the nationalist worldview and that it projects this worldview on every sphere of cultural/social activity.
Structural Implications of Nationalism
To claim that nationalism is the modern culture is tantamount to saying that it represents the cultural foundation of modern social structure, economics, politics, international relations, education, art, science, family relations, and so on and so forth. I shall mention just the most salient of its implications for the character of modernity in the ascending order of importance, starting with modern economy.
Modern economy, contrary to a widespread belief, to put it bluntly, is a product of nationalism, for it is this vision of social reality which provided economic activity with the motivation that reoriented it from subsistence to sustained growth (see Greenfeld 2001). The economic effects of nationalism are mainly the result of the egalitarian principle at its core. To begin with, the definition of the entire population, the people, as a nation, that is, as an elite (given the previous meaning of the word ‘nation’ in its ecclesiastical context) symbolically elevates the lower classes and ennobles their activities. Economic activities in general, engaging the overwhelming majority of the people and traditionally denigrated in pre-national societies precisely for this reason, gain status and, with it, a hold on the talented people who, under different circumstances, having achieved a certain level of financial independence, would choose to leave the economic sphere.
Arguably of even greater moment is the fact that the symbolic ennoblement of the populace in nationalism makes membership in the nation, that is, nationality itself, an honourable elevated status, thereby tying one’s sense of dignity and self-respect to one’s national identity. This ensures one’s commitment to the national community and, in particular, one’s investment in the nation’s collective dignity, or prestige. Prestige is a relative good: one nation’s having more of it implies that another has less. Therefore, investment in national prestige necessarily gives rise to an endless international competition, for no matter how much prestige one may have gained at a certain moment, one can be outdone in the next. Unlike other types of societies, then, nations are inherently competitive. This competition goes on in all the spheres of collective endeavour: moral (the nation’s record on human rights, for instance), pertaining to cultural creativity (scientific, literary, musical, etc.), military, political. Any particular nation chooses those spheres of competition where it has a chance to end on, or near, the top, and disregards those in which it is likely to be shamefully out-competed. For instance, Russia has always chosen to compete in the cultural and military arenas, and has never been interested in economic competition.
Where economic competition is included among the areas of national engagement, however, the inherent competitiveness of nationalism gives rise to the economies of sustained, endless, growth—that is, to what are recognized as modern economies.
Since not all nations include the economy among the spheres of international competition in which they are willing to engage, not all nations develop the specifically ‘economic nationalism,’ that is, an economic interpretation of nationalism, and therefore a reconstruction of the economic activity on the basis of the nationalist image of reality. Thus, while economies of sustained growth (modern economies) cannot exist without nationalism, nationalism can exist without spawning economies of sustained growth or economic modernization. In distinction, nationalism cannot fail to affect politics, as it does not simply encourage, but logically implies the reconstruction of political structures and processes in accordance with its fundamental principles. The essential secularism and the two principles of nationalism’s image of the social world define this form of consciousness as such, and though its specific expressions, or particular nationalisms, are distinguished by numerous other qualities, it is these three general characteristics which explain the central political features of every modern society.
The first of these central features to be listed is the democratization or universality of political action: the striking fact that in modern societies it may be found on any rung of the social ladder and in any corner of the national territory. It is this, dramatic by comparison to other types of societies, level of political participation which the term ‘civil society’ as a rule describes. Indeed, it would be absurd to talk of ‘civil society’ or ‘political action’ in the framework of the European feudal society or Indian caste society, to mention the two perhaps best-known non-modern types. The forms of consciousness prevailing in them did not allow for the existence of such political phenomena, which still appear unimaginable to us, being logically incongruent with the two cultural frameworks.
The focus of nationalism on this world as ultimately meaningful and the principle of popular sovereignty combine to render social reality changeable and place the responsibility for its shape in the hands of the earthly living community—the nation. The focus on the life in this world dramatically increases the value of this life to the individual and inevitably leads to the insistence on a good life, however defined. One is no longer expected to submit to suffering or deprivation, unless one has special reasons to do so, for the general reasons for such submission—the expectation of rewards in the beyond, transmutation and migration of the soul, the duty to witness to the glory of God wherever one is called, or the sheer impossibility to change one’s condition—no longer apply.
Moreover, in a self-sufficient world, changeable and shaped by people, suffering is generally believed to be man-made. Even natural disasters are likely to be so interpreted: a famine, an earthquake, or an epidemic are as often as not attributed to some human agent’s withholding of the needed but available resources or negligence; personal misfortunes, such as debilitating, life-threatening and incurable illnesses are blamed on artificially-created environmental conditions (second-hand smoke, lead paint, etc.) or on doctors’ incompetence. None of these natural disasters, it is said, ‘have to happen’: they are no longer believed to be in the nature of things. Of course, the right to a life free of suffering is most clearly asserted when suffering is caused—as it is mostly in modern societies—by social evils: war, economic or political conditions, competition for precedence, and so forth. Humiliation, rejection, thwarted ambition are felt as unjust—as contrary to expectations and thus resulting from illegitimate intervention of malicious others. As one’s precious time on earth is limited, the change in the conditions preventing the realization of one’s right to a life of contentment, free of suffering, is experienced as urgent, and since those responsible for their creation are only human, any naturally active and temperamental individual, who is not particularly timid, easily gets engaged in whatever form the political process around him or her takes.
As a result, involvement in political action (or participation in civil society) under nationalism is a function not of the social position—as it was, let us say, in feudal and absolutist Europe or in Tokugawa Japan—but of character and personality. Since temperament changes with age, and young people, for instance, are more likely to be impetuous and unthinkingly brave, it is also a function of age: it is noteworthy that all revolutionary movements of the past 300 years, from the French Revolution to the student movement of the 1960s, were movements of adolescents and people in their twenties and to a lesser extent thirties. It is even more significant that in the past 300 years—but never before—there were revolutionary movements, that is, explicit attempts at social change, movements oriented towards reshaping the world by human design. All forms of consciousness allow for revolts and rebellions, spontaneous eruptions of frustration and rage, essentially expressive collective actions, aimless—perhaps vaguely oriented to the righting of some tremendous, but ill-defined, wrongs—with goals and demands thought through, if at all, only after the fact. But revolutions are a modern form of political action: at their root always lies nationalism (see Greenfeld 1995).
The central political institution of our age, the state, is also a product of nationalism. Specifically, it is an implication of the principle of popular sovereignty. The state is not to be confused with government in general; it is only a form of government, and this form is characteristically modern and necessarily bureaucratic. The concept of ‘state’ as a form of government appeared in the English language of the sixteenth century—about 50 years after the entrenchment of the idea of the ‘nation’ and well into the development of the nationalist discourse. It obviously reflected a new reality, as it did later in other countries when the term migrated there in translation. This new reality was the new form of government, called forth by the new form of consciousness, which presented a new image of what a government should be. As nationalism first developed in Western Europe, this image contrasted most sharply with the then existing Western European ideal of government—the medieval ideal of kingship. The distinguishing characteristic of kingship was its personality: the government was inseparable from a particular person, a person born at a certain time to a certain family, who needed no other qualifications in addition to this accident of birth (of course, never regarded as an accident and at a later stage explicitly reaffirmed as divine appointment) to assume power. In contrast, the distinguishing characteristic of the state became its impersonality. Since supreme authority, in the framework of nationalism, resides in the body of the nation in accordance with the principle of popular sovereignty, the authority of the state is necessarily delegated, representative (in the sense that it only represents the authority of the people) and, insofar as it is subject to recall, limited. Sovereignty is delegated to the office, not to any particular person, and any person exercises authority only as a holder of the office. The state is a government by officers, that is, a bureaucracy. In this sense, Adolf Hitler, the Führer who ardently believed that he represented the will of the German people, was but a bureaucrat, as was Josef Stalin, the appositely referred to General Secretary, who did not believe in any such thing but made sure that everyone else did.
Finally, the principle of the equality of national membership lies at the root of the open recruitment to state offices, which obviously also exerts a most profound influence on the nature of politics in modern society. It is through the principle of equality of membership—its core social principle—that nationalism affects the social structure most directly, because in modern society the system of social stratification—the nodal social structure, in which all social systems meet and connect—is based on this principle. In this case, too, the modern, or national, system of social stratification represents the very opposite of the stratification system characteristic of the European feudal society, which it replaced. In place of a rigid structure, sharply distinguishing between strata of which it was composed and, except by special dispensation, allowing no movement between them, we now have an open system with loosely and only theoretically defined compartments, in practice virtually indistinguishable and seamlessly flowing one into another via the numerous channels of social mobility. One no longer has a social position and function, clearly defined by birth, which is supposed to serve one (or, rather, which one is supposed to serve) all of one’s lifetime; instead, one is supposed to choose a function and to achieve a social position (which presupposes specifically upward mobility), moving from one social position to higher and higher ones as one grows older, ‘bettering oneself, or ‘getting ahead.’ In modern societies one does not talk of ‘usurpers,’ ‘parvenus,’ or, however great the temptation, ‘nouveaux riches’: one is expected, even encouraged, to strive, to have ambitions, to be a proficient social climber. And so there is nothing strange in a poor seminarist from Georgia becoming the all-powerful ruler of the great Soviet Union; a son of elderly underpaid Leningrad parents rising through the ranks of foreign espionage to the presidency of only slightly less great Russia; a daughter of a modest greengrocer gaining recognition as the premier of the United Kingdom; and a child of a single mother, unhappily remarried to a garage mechanic from Arkansas, twice being elected to head the United States of America. Our form of consciousness, nationalism, makes this kind of mountaineering normal, respectable, in fact, necessary. The combination of the principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership implies democracy: government of the people by the people; therefore, political recruitment must be open to any member of the nation. The process of recruitment in the democratic, national, or modern societies differs drastically from those based on forms of consciousness different from nationalism, for, whatever the differences between nationalisms (which, as I have argued elsewhere may be very significant), it is in all nations essentially, rather than accidentally, a process of self-recruitment, always dependent on (though not inevitably determined by) individual initiative, the nature of one’s ambition and talent, while in other societies it follows strictly charted paths from certain initial social positions to specified political functions, which only extraordinary circumstances allow one to circumvent.
The egalitarian presupposition of nationalism’s image of society, which necessitates an open and fluid system of social stratification, that is, the class system, characterized by social mobility, makes the individual the historical agent and bases the social position, or status, on transferable goods of wealth and education. When the culture of nationalism is imported into a traditional society, it necessarily undermines the characteristic rigid stratification (such as that of the society of orders, a legal estate- or a religious caste-system), with its status based on birth; the family, rather than the individual, as the historical agent; and, as a consequence, the illegitimacy of social mobility. Since the system of stratification is the nodal social structure, in which all the others criss-cross and influence each other; it does not exist separately but only through the others. It is, therefore, clear that a dramatic reconstruction of the social stratification, such as is presupposed by the emergence or importation of nationalism, will change the very nature of the existential experience, of one’s desires and aspirations, frustrations and fears, the very nature of one’s passions, and with them, both of happiness and of suffering. In the modern world, defined by nationalism, one can, nay, is supposed to, make oneself; the open system of stratification allows and encourages ambition; one is free to move and is invited to shape one’s destiny. Only in nations are children asked what they want to be when they grow up. This question is inconceivable, more than that, subversive in a traditional society where one’s future is determined by birth. The countless children who declare they want to become an American president, or a British prime minister, or whatever is regarded as the preeminent leadership position in Russia at the moment, are not checked as precociousarrivistes, they are praised for the healthy vigour of their aspirations. And this freedom is not limited to the political or even generally occupational sphere. One can dream to become a great scholar or a multimillionaire or a heroic firefighter, or one can think not in terms of greatness at all, rather seeking self-realization as a gardener or fulfilment in love. All these are modern desires, made possible by the egalitarianism of nationalism and the system of stratification it creates. Who thought of marital happiness when marriage was a contract concluded between two families, rather than a free union between two individuals, and when being a wife or a husband was a job and an office?
The Price We Pay: Anomie
But the advantages of modernity come with a heavy price-tag. The greater is the choice one is given in forming one’s destiny, the heavier is the burden of responsibility for making the right choice. The more opportunities one is offered to ‘find oneself, the harder it is to decide where to look. Life has never been so exciting and so frustrating; we have never been so empowered and so helpless. Modern societies, produced by nationalism, because of their very secularism, openness and the elevation of the individual, are necessarily anomic. As was recognized already by Durkheim, anomie is the fundamental structural problem of modernity (1964 ; 1966 ). Anomie, commonly translated as ‘normlessness,’ refers to a condition of cultural insufficiency, a systemic problem which reflects inconsistency, or the lack of coordination, between various institutional structures, as a result of which they are likely to send contradictory messages to individuals within them. On the psychological level anomie produces a sense of disorientation, of uncertainty as to one’s place in society, and therefore as to one’s identity: of what one is expected to do under circumstances of one sort or another, of the limits to one’s possible achievement (that is, aspirations that would be frustrated) on the social, political, economic and personal planes. In acute cases such a sense of disorientation and uncertainty leads to depression, deviant behaviour, even to suicide. On the social level, pervasive anomie necessarily increases the rates of depression, deviance and suicide. Indeed, Durkheim’s classic discussion of the phenomenon occurs in his study of the rates of suicide. Anomie may occur in all types of societies, but in modern society it is a built-in feature. One cannot have modernity, one cannot have nationalism, without anomie.
Anomie is, in fact, the ultimate cause of cultural change. It both breaks the old cultural routine and encourages the formation of a new one. The general pattern of human history can be imagined as an alternation between relatively brief and rare periods of widespread (though culturally localized) anomie and cultural routine. Widespread anomie, most commonly implying gross inconsistencies between elements of culture impinging on individual identities, specifically inconsistencies within the system of social stratification which defines a person’s position in the social world in general and vis-à-visparticular others, affects large groups of individuals and expresses itself in social turmoil. A readjustment of the stratification system in the course of such turmoil eliminates these inconsistencies, that is, resolves anomie, again making possible unhindered development of identity and routine functioning of both the individual and the surrounding culture. But modern culture (and, as a result, modern history) does not fit this pattern. Nationalism, the novel vision of reality, which was the formula sixteenth-century Englishmen used—quite successfully, so far as they were concerned—to resolve their particular anomic situation, turned out to be anomic, and anomie-generic, vision. Thus it has produced a culture (meaning a society, a polity an economy—the entire organization of human life, in short), in whichanomie is built-in. In modern culture, in other words, the cultural routine itself is anomic. We live in a constant condition of anomie.
As much as the open class structure, the state and civil society, and the modern economy characterized by sustained growth (in nations that choose to compete in the economic arena), anomie is an implication of the nationalist image of reality. Among other things, this explains the amount of strife in and among modern societies, providing an answer to Anthony Smith’s questions ‘Why are men and women [indeed, in record numbers] willing to die for their countries? Why do they identify so strongly with their nations?.’ We are now in a position also to answer definitively Anthony Smith’s central question, Are nations modern?,’ and perhaps end the nationalism debate. The understanding of the link between nationalism and modernity is indeed of central importance, and for much more than the field of nationalism studies alone. Yes, nations are modern: as a historical form of social organization they belong to the modern period. Of far greater significance, however, is that modernity is nationalistic: it is defined and shaped by nationalism.