December 10, 2006

States, Nations and Nationalism

James Higham in his normal acute way has picked up on a current phenomenon in today's world- the fissaporous tendencies of minor nationalisms, whether in Chechnya, Tibet, Scotland or Cyprus which in different ways seem to be breaking up larger states. James argues in his post that what's going on is a breakdown of the conventional state before on the one hand a liberal affection for the minority and on the other the rising power of multinational organisations. On the one hand, government getting closer and on the other government getting further away from us.

He is on to something here. Over the last two centuries, the great imperial states firstly on the continent of Europe, particularly with the destruction of the Napoleonic empire out of which flowed much German nationalistic literature and later in the European empires broke up. In many ways what is happening both in the Middle East and in Russia is a last stage of this- the origins of the war in Iraq lie in the breakdown of Ottoman imperial authority, the wars in Chechnya and the destruction of the Soviet Union were as much the demolition of the unit created by the Tsars as they were of the unit created by Stalin.

Principles of the nationstate- of the creation of what Benedict Anderson has called imagined communities- seem to be something whose political importance has multiplied in the last couple of centuries. Why then does an intelligent observor like Mr Higham see what is happening now as a brief and local phenomenen rather than a very old and enduring aspect of modern politics?

The great nationalist movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries largely reacted against more antique forms of national organisation. In Italy and Germany for example- the creation of a nation state was the product of the forced unification of several small principalities, duchies and bishoprics and the expulsion of the large Habsburg empire. Territorially the unifications didn't result in the loss of much territory either by the Habsburg or the Napoleonic empires though both lost through it but both saw the expulsion of imperial influence from Germany and Italy. Even in Britain, the creation of British nationalism was an anti-imperial movement, against the Bourbon monarchy. Britain likewise was a fusion of various more ancient states.

Over the twentieth century, the creation of nation-states was disrupted by the fifty year crisis of the first and second world wars, during which the frontiers of Europe ebbed and flowed. The main event though in terms of the creation of nation states, took place after 1918 and was a consequence of the weakness of world powers following the first world war. The intrusion of a vast nation-state the US into politics and the destruction of the Romanov, Habsburg, Ottoman and Hohenzollern empires led to the creation of a series of nation states, starting from 1871 a whole series of nation states- Rumania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Hungary, Poland, even for a while the Baltic states- were created.

This trend of 1918 seems to be the same trend as is going on now. The twentieth century has been a century as Niall Ferguson argues in which empires rise and fall swiftly and at each of the declines of imperial authority, they have been replaced with a range of nation states. Whether we talk about the ebbing of authority after World War One in Eastern Europe, of imperial authority mainly French or British in the third world after World War Two and of imperial Marxist authority in Europe and the republics of the Soviet union in the early 1990s, what replaces it in most cases is a collection of nation states.

What we are seeing now therefore is something that is a long range trend. The first creations of nation states came out of fairly weak smaller countries, during the twentieth century as empires have fallen more swiftly than before, we've seen nation states carved out of the old regime. Mr Higham's analysis is correct, what it demonstrates though is something about the way that power is configured within the modern world which means that imperial authority, a mainstay of political organisation over the millenia of civilisation we have so far seen, has declined.

There are other things going on here- but the way that nationalism has worked during the last two centuries started with the unifying forces tieing smaller states together and then the destructive forces pulling states apart have during the last century become more powerful. What the rise of multinational organisations may demonstrate though is that unificatory forces of identity- like Anti-Americanism- are still powerful. Multinational groupings are replacements possibly in some ways for imperial groupings- China, Europe, NAFTA and even the African Union- represent a new fusion of identity and empire. Their ancient comparitors might be Rome and China- in terms of identities which embraced large numbers of people with more local identities.

This doesn't answer Mr Higham's eloquent post, but I think considering nationalism and the way that we organise the borders of states and how that's shifted and continues to shift is an interesting subject, this post is no final word but it presents some thoughts which I admit are mostly unsustainable generalisations.


james higham said...

[Why does he] ... see what is happening now as a brief and local phenomenen rather than a very old and enduring aspect of modern politics?

Ah but he doesn't see it as brief and local, Tiberius. Indeed not and he's just posted on this in a further rant.

All you say here holds water. There are certainly historical cycles and we are moving towards a fall of the Roman Empire phase in some ways.

Where we might differ, you and I, is that the historical data, irrefutable, of course, may not be the whole story. I included eleven links which seem to indicate that there is very much a troublemaking force behind all the major movements in history.

Gracchi said...

Sorry James might just have read yours too quickly- reading when tired- always a fault which means that you skip over words. Apologies there.

I am personally always very sceptical of conspiracy theories because I in my own historical work have found that cockup explains a lot more than conspiracy. Its just my own sense- and this may be a tempramental difference between us- that politicians and leaders don't really control what happens. Indeed that noone really controls what happens- that its all chaotic- the movements if you like of 6 billion autonomous individuals through the world and that that more complex picture produces various trend lines and that that is what is at work here.