Essay on National vs State Government
What role is to be played by the nation and state in an increasingly global world? How does one read the rise of nationalism under such conditions? These questions can only be answered if one takes apart the taken-for-granted language of the nation and remembers that, while the State is a political machine-the product of a kind of instrumental, rationalizing, divisive modernity-the nation is the collective representation of a kind of cultural consciousness. Nationalism is thus a form of cultural expression, quite distinct from patriotism which seems to be a blind allegiance to a false god, although there are reasons for their relationship.
For Ernest Gellner, nationalism relates to “‘a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones” (1). Thus, it is dependent upon the existence of both a nation and a state. Following Weber, the State is defined as the political institution that centralizes control over the means of violence (Qtd in Gellner, 3).
A nation can be defined in two ways. First, there is some presumption of the existence of a common culture, which can be understood as “a system of ideas and signs and associations and ways of behaving and communicating” (Gellner, 7). Second, there seems to be the need for members of a nation to recognize that shared culture and identity, which in effect is a loyalty to, and a consciousness of, the idea of the nation. These two definitions Gellner calls the ‘Cultural’ and the Voluntaristic’ (Gellner, 7). Gellner thus takes a somewhat functionalist view of the nation and the state, by seeking to understand it in terms of both a cultural system and recognition of voluntary action.
Craig Calhoun, by contrast, suggests that:
The history of nation, in short, is not a story of the inheritance of primordial ethnic identities. Nor is it a narrative in which purely arbitrary boundaries are imposed by sheer force of will of indifferent populations. It is, rather, an aspect of the creation of social integrated political communities in which a large scale, identity-forming collective discourse was possible (55).
Calhoun goes on to suggest a number of factors that influenced this transformation. One was ideological, that is, the transformation of categories (such as the people) altering understanding of the sources of political legitimacy. A second was material, or technological, as advances in transport and communications allowed people to stay in touch with friends and family around the nation. An economic factor and a political factor-the growing administrative power of the State-were also key influences. According to Calhoun, nation emerged through spheres of political publics, whose identities “were formed and revised partly through their participation in the public sphere, not settled in advance” (Calhoun, 56).
Herein lies the contradiction: it could be argued that the nation has to be a unified mass, and that the relationship between the nation and the State is a reciprocal one, in that a nation requires a political system (the State) to provide stability, while the State requires the services and support of the collective (the nation) for its legitimacy (Beetham, 217). A Weberian perspective would understand this in terms of the mutually beneficial co-existence of different forms of rationality. State thus provided democracies with a tacit assumption of the boundaries of the political community, and democratic theory had-and has-little coherent answer to why such boundaries should exist (Calhoun, 56).
David Held has argued that the emergence of citizenship rights and duties in the West has coincided with the development of democracy. Accordingly, national identities have to be seen in the context of these political developments. The consolidation of state sovereignty in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries helped foster the identity of people as political subjects-citizens. It meant that those subject to a state’s authority were slowly made aware of their membership in a community and the rights and obligations such membership might confer. The formation of national identities was often the result both of a struggle for membership in the new political communities, and of a struggle by political elites and governments to create a new identity to legitimate the modern state itself (Held, 121-122).
Perhaps Held is guilty here of placing too much emphasis on the political, and not enough on the cultural. National identities as cultural identities not bound up in allegiance to any particular nation-state surely preceded membership of political communities. The nation-state is a relatively new institution. While Held is right to suggest that there is a dialectical relationship between citizens and political decision-makers, his suggestions concerning the emergence of citizenship seem limited to the institutional level, and unhelpful if one is to follow the line that assumes that citizenship need not specifically relate to a state.
National identities are not purely political inventions, but they have been achieved through historical struggles: they are constructed. As Miller says, the primacy given to the nation as a source of identity is a relatively recent phenomenon. Previously, kinship or village identification was as, or more, important. This is in contradiction to the conservative, essentialist perspective-the view, for example, of De Maistre, and those such as Marsland, who have championed him-which sees the emergence of the nation as natural and thus primitive (Marsland, 12). Furthermore, it is by no means the only basis for individual identity, although the closure of the public sphere led to a restriction of available sources for such an identity.
However, as Calhoun states, where some form of democratic public sphere exists, people construct their identities through a variety of group affiliations and cultural categories, such as gender, religion, family, community, occupation and politics, as well as nation (156). National identity itself is constructed through such other traits as language and territory, and as such is always being reconstructed and renegotiated through cultural and social interaction. Through such interaction, the adult ego-identity allows the citizen to construct new identities in situations of conflict and to successfully manage and blend these identities into a life-history. Indeed, national identities have been eroded, so that internal and external enemies can no longer be identified, or distinctions of any kind made, easily, through national characteristics.
In such a democracy, it is usually only in ‘extreme circumstances’ (such as war) that the nation takes priority. The decline of the democratic public sphere means a closure of such a notion of civil society, and thus a closure of opportunities for communication, the exchange of ideas and knowledge and nationalism, in the more common sense. It would thus follow that the expansion of the public sphere, to what might be called a global civil society, opens up the possibility for discourse over issues of difference.
The purpose of this paper has been to outline the ways in which the idea of nation and the state have been closely interlinked throughout the many years. It has been argued that there is nothing inherent in the condition of citizenship that requires such an association. Membership, rights, duties and participation all pre-date modern political institutions and can exist independently of them. Indeed, the reconstruction of citizenship and its relationship to civil society and the public sphere has been as much about the rise of the modern nation-state, and thus the centralization and technical rationalization of power and politics, as it has been about democratization and public debate. Citizenship in the modern, nation-state sense emerged as a political tool, used for nation-building and as a means of excluding outsiders. The conflation of nation with state has allowed for a confused form of nationalism-as much, if not more, political than cultural-to evolve. At the same time, nation-state citizenship has been neglectful in matters of gender, class and ethnicity, despite its integrationist claims.
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