Nations, like G-d, have proven to be quite elusive: intellectuals and scholars have proclaimed both to be dead, both have found ingenious ways of resurfacing in mainstream society, and yet nobody can seem to come to an agreement as to what either one exactly is. By 1900, nations-states, amorphous as they were, had become the standard unit of play in international politics, representing the aims and aspirations of a group of people that had, as Benedict Anderson aptly put it, imagined themselves into convenient groups. However, other criteria for separating groups had also been floated, primarily class and religion. These did not, however, inspire the bonds that would control territory or secure the political interests of a group. The death of the nation-state was proclaimed, perhaps in the backdrop of the two World Wars and the Holocaust, optimistically hoping that men would finally beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The decolonisation that occurred in the aftermath of the Second World War, however, was fuelled by fierce nationalist sentiment. If anything, the wars only underscored the necessity for each imagined community to control its own destiny. The world distracted by the Cold War, this went unnoticed with the proclamation of universal ideals like democracy and socialism. For Anderson, it was only in 1979 with the Chinese invasion of Vietnam that burning yet under-emphasised nationalism was revealed. The fall of the Soviet Union also rekindled the embers of nationalism within the Soviet republics as well as in Eastern Europe. Although the recent rise of fundamentalism has been under the guise of religion, there exist, in fact, fractures within the movement along national and sectarian lines. Thus, nation-states seem more prevalent than scholars have posited or hoped for.

Indeed, while the meaning of nation has been hotly contested in academic debates on the nature of nationalism, it seems possible to discern three distinct trends.  The first is characterized not by a consensus on what constitutes the nation but by the agreement that such a thing exists extra-referentially and whose antecedents can be located in past social and cultural groupings. In contrast, scholars of the second trend, while also affirming the subjecthood of the nation, define it as a distinctively modern development that could only have emerged as a corollary of industrialization and the emergence of large-scale capitalism. Finally, adherents of the third trend, who are in the minority, argue that the nation is not a subject or object but a set of relationships and thus constitutes a dynamic network cluster in which power is created and through which it is channelled.  The nation, in this view, does not possess an actual moment-to-moment existence but must be reconstituted at the instant of each power transaction.  Thus it is a phenomenological object whose existence is contingent on the viewpoints and relationships of those who construct its boundaries.

A well-known scholar of European nationalism, Miroslav Hroch, defines nation as a large social group integrated by a combination of several kinds of objective relationships and their subjective reflection in collective consciousness. These relationships include a memory of some common past, treated as a ‘destiny’ of the group, a density of linguistic or cultural ties enabling a higher degree of social communication within the group than beyond it, and a conception of the equality of all members of the group organized as a civil society. Although the national unit is here characterized by social and political relationships, it is still a subject that exists a priori and must be endowed with the characteristics of nationhood.  In fact, Hroch’s dynamic account of nation-development presupposes the nation as the subject of a linear, teleological model of Enlightenment History and implies the inevitability of its development in the modern era.  In a similar way, Anthony Smith also affirms the existence of the nation as an subject, situating its origins in the existence of ethnic communities (ethnies) that share the following attributes: 1. a collective proper name, 2. a myth of common ancestry, 3. shared historical memories, 4. one or more differentiating elements of common culture, 5. an association with a specific homeland, and 6. a sense of solidarity for significant portions of the population. Clearly both Hroch and Smith locate the materials for the building of a nation in its mythic past and, while not denying the createdness of the nation, they affirm the nation’s continuity and its material existence.  For Smith and Hroch, then, the nation seems to represent continuity rather than rupture with the past. This school obviously sees a steady presence of nations even through the twentieth century since the criteria by which they evaluate nationhood was hardly ever eroded despite occasional ideological movements.

In contrast, scholars of the second group, such as Ernest Gellner, Benedict Anderson, John Breuilly and Eric Hobsbawm, characterize the nation as an artifact of modernity, to which it is inextricably linked. Gellner defines in Nations and Nationalism a nation as a body of individuals that have been initiated into a common high culture by the processes of industrialization and the institutions of modernity. This primarily cultural definition emphasizes the crucial role of the transition from agrarian to industrial society as the key constitutive event in the life of the nation since it is only then that culture ceases to be the device that defines specific social positions and becomes, instead, the boundary demarcation of large and internally mobile social unity, within which individuals have no fixed position and are rotated in the light of the requirements of production. Anderson echoes Gellner’s description of the nation, characterizing it, famously, as a limited, sovereign imagined community that came into being with the advent of print capitalism, the death of traditional religions and their idioms, and the shared colonial experience that provided a cement of sorts for new national groups as well as the colonizer nations themselves.

Another strand of scholars in this group emphasize the political rather than the cultural characteristics of the nation.  For example, Breuilly argues that the nation is a distinct, politically autonomous group the identity of whose adherents is primarily defined through their political allegiance to the nation.  He goes on to argue that a nation and its attendant nationalisms should primarily be viewed as a matter of performance through politics, particularly through the functions of coordination, mobilization and legitimacy.  Similarly, Hobsbawm describes the nation and nationalism as a political program that holds that groups defined as ‘nations’ have the right to, and therefore ought to, form territorial states of the kind that have become standard since the French Revolution. In addition to their insistence on the modern nature of the national phenomenon, what all of these scholars share is their unconscious confirmation of the nation’s essential Being in the Heideggerian sense, that is, as something that is bounded, however imperfectly, and that constitutes an internally consistent subject of study despite its immense complexity. This line of thought opens up the possibility for the death of the nation—the erosion of political authority would necessarily imply for these scholars an erosion of nationhood. Thus, the growth of NGOs and supranational entities is at the expense of national cohesiveness; political sovereignty is a zero-sum game.

Conversely, the scholars in the third group describe the nation in terms of its effects rather than its essences or antecedents.  In his seminal work, Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, Subaltern Studies historian Partha Chatterjee characterizes the modern capitalist nation-state as a procession of Gramscian “moments” each defined by a different type of power relation.  The moment of departure lies in the encounter of a nationalist consciousness with the framework of knowledge created by post-Enlightenment rationalist thought and (re)produces within the national bourgeoisie the dichotomy between the East and West.  The next stage, the moment of manoeuvre, requires the mobilization of popular elements in the cause of an anti-colonial struggle and, at the same time, a distancing of those elements from the structure of the state.  Finally, in the moment of arrival, the nationalist discourse attempts and generally succeeds in glossing over all earlier contradictions, divergences and differences and incorporating within the body of a unified discourse every aspect and stage in the history of its formation.  In a later work, Chatterjee further elaborates on the notion of the nation as a process of power-producing contradictions, in which the Indian nation-state came into being by dividing the world of social institutions and practices into two domains—the material and the spiritual.  The material domain is the “outside,” the world of public life in which the colonized are forced to interact with the colonizers who shape the public discourse to conform to their vision(s) of reality.  However, in the privacy of the spiritual domain, the nationalist discourse had the breathing space to begin to develop its own narrative, since it is in the private space that nationalism launches its most powerful, creative, and historically significant project: to fashion a “modern” national culture that is nevertheless not Western. After independence, the colonial nationalist contradiction between public and private was reproduced in the newly independent state and continued, in a fundamental way, to define the very being of the nation as a set of cultural, legal, political and social processes.

In an even stronger critique of the nation as a subject, Prasenjit Duara in his work, Rescuing History From the Nation, argues that it is the creation of a linear history based on Enlightenment ideas of progress that secures for the contested and contingent nation the false unity of a self-same national subject evolving through time.  Rather than a false unity, Duara proposes that national identity be reconceptualized as an often-conflicting “fluid network of representations” through which the national self is constructed.  In this schema, nationalism is rarely the nationalism of the nation, but rather marks the site where different representations of the nation contest and negotiate with each other. Finally, in Modernity at Large, Arjun Appadurai posits a new set of identity relationships that transcend the national.  He suggests that thinking about modern identity requires a profound reformulation of the ways in which we construct the idea of the self. He proposes the idea of identity landscapes or “–scapes” as a framework for exploring the identity disjunctures that result from modern phenomena, such as mass migration, global capitalism, the juxtaposition of global and local perspectives, and the worldwide dissemination of information on an unprecedented scale.  These landscapes are thus posited as the building blocks of multiple worlds that are constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe. In this paradigm the nation is an imagined set of relations that transcends physical boundaries and is reformulated in each instance according to the context of a given situation.  It is an association, an exchange of will and affect, and a node of power dynamics rather than a thing or a subject—this simple observation might seem obvious, but it is crucial to developing an understanding of where the nation comes from and how it structures and functions in both society and the individual.

Along the lines of Appadurai’s “–scapes,” one of the central works that have tried to re-imagine the international order is Michael Hardt’s and Antonio Negri’s Empire. The authors do well to distinguish between nation-states and political sovereignty: in the era of globalisation, although nation-states have weakened, political sovereignty has not. Hardt and Negri argue that because the primary factors of production and exchange—money, technology, people and goods—move with increasing ease across national boundaries, the nation-state has less power to regulate these flows and impose its authority over the economy. Despite this transformation, political controls, state functions, and regulatory mechanisms continue to rule the realm of economic and social production and exchange. The nation-state is weakened, according to Hardt and Negri, not because of ideology as was posited earlier, but because of the appearance of multiple supranational power structures such as the World Trade Organisation, United Nations, and most poignantly, the European Union.

Although these authors put their faith in a delocalised global order that at once preserves local difference and maximises global economic potential, their claims are more based on assessments and projections of trends into the future rather than historical evidence. Their claims that the nation-state has been weakened because of emergent supranationality and global economic interdependence, because rulers no longer can oppress their subjects with impunity as they used to because of growing internationalism, fails on multiple accounts. First, historical evidence is scant in supporting their claims—similar arguments were made before the outbreak of World War I, and the economic interdependence and the presence of international treaties and bodies did nothing to lessen the carnage of 1914 – 1918. Second, Hardt and Negri assume that international bodies can and will act against rogue nation-states. The League of Nations and its orphan child, the United Nations, is a sad reminder of the limitations of internationalism. Nation-states do remain the sole arbiters of their subjects’ collective destiny in most cases. Furthermore, in a nuclear world, the atomic bomb gives a nation-state sufficient power to withstand international pressure.North Koreais an excellent example of this. In all this flouting of international order, the primary actor has remained the nation-state. For better or for worse, the nation-state system has been the most enduring model for international security. Third, fourth-world nationalisms, i.e., the unrealised nationalism of an imagined group, have yet to move the international community. The plight of the Jewish people until 1948, or that of the Kurds today, despite brutal massacres, does not gain the required opprobrium from the international community. However, the successful establishment of a nation-state gives groups a voice in the international system; hence Ho Chi Minh’s trip to Versailles in 1919.

It is not our purpose to discuss the antiquity of nations but their persistence. As to the former, few stellar works have been recently written, notably by David Goodblatt and Adrian Hastings. Herman Lebovics has in his latest two works, True France and Bringing the Empire Back Home, exposed in the French case the resilience and weakness of the French national project over multiple changes in the world order. Although he seems to imply it, he never explicitly states the obvious: the amorphous nature of the nation is the source of its strength. The different aspects of France that are exposed in the dialogue between Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen and Jane Kramer’s Europeans highlight this further. While Weber strives to bring out the late modernisation of the French interior, its induction into “Frenchness,” Kramer exposes the innumerable fissures that run through Europe’s communities and yet keep European nations together. Although Kramer does not intend to argue for the resilience of nations, that is in fact exactly what she does, particularly in her masterful essay of the rise of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his xenophobes. In having the ability to adapt to circumstances—imperialism, decolonisation, globalisation—nationalism revitalises itself every generation. The mistake of scholars trying to forecast its demise is that the image of the nation-state is too static in their minds. In all likelihood, the nation-state will continue despite—because of—its definition being in a state of constant flux, to be the fundamental unit of political sovereignty in the 21st century.

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Jaideep A. Prabhu is a specialist in foreign and nuclear policy; he also pokes his nose in energy and defence related matters.

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