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What It Takes to Become A Nation: Imagine a Community

August 29, 2012

Why do some nations fail to prosper? Arguably one key element is the ability of its members to imagine themselves as part of something called nation. The image that citizens have of their nations is the glue that holds together the different pieces of the mosaic. If a nation does not have a precise identity which citizens buy into, the nation is bound to fail to prosper. More poignantly, the legitimacy and credibility of the nation building project loses its strength: citizens see the different pieces but not the whole which is the nation. As this happens, the glue of a unique identity melts and people imagine themselves apart from the nation: everybody is on its own.

So what makes people feel they have a stake in their nation? What makes them live and die for nations? Benedict Anderson tackled these questions in its landmark study “Imagined Communities” and its conclusions are still very relevant for countries which today are embarked on their nation-building projects. His thesis is that nations are essentially communities which are imagined to exist. Nations are imagined as both limited and sovereign. They are limited because they have well defined boundaries beyond which lie other nations: on one side us, on the other side the other. They are sovereign because they were born outside the dynastic realm, they were born free. A series of factors substantiated this act of imagination.

Anonymity and Newspapers. The one single force which makes nations is the ability of its members to imagine a steady and simultaneous activity of the fellow nationals.  More importantly the nationals are to gain confidence that such imagination of fellow nationals living and acting at the same time is real. This fiction was created by a serial of rituals which were practiced at the same time by a majority of the fellow nationals: reading the newspaper was one of such acts. Each reader is aware that the ceremony is replicated somewhere else in the country at the same time. He has the slightest idea of the identity of the other readers yet he is able to assume their existence on the basis of the replication of the ceremonial. Fellow citizens have no name, they are anonymous to him, yet they exist. Furthermore, as he sees the newspaper handled by people in his neighborhood he realizes that the community-nation he imagines is rooted in the everyday life of real people. In this way “fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community in anonymity which is the hallmark of modern nations”[1].

Nation-Building: From Below and From Above. For those countries which obtained their independence after World War Two, nation, nation-ness and nationalism were the tropes through which their independence were to take shape. They copied and adapted models that had been developed in another time and in other continents. One model was offered by the liberation movements in the Americas. It comprised the elements of a popular movement: republican institutions, common citizenship, popular sovereignty, national flags and anthems. For these movements everybody within the community was to become member of the new nation: the  middle-class national intelligentsia invited the masses into history by substituting serfdom, slavery and subjecthood  to popular education, expanded suffrage and citizenship for all.

The nation-building project from below was, however, counteracted from the nation building from above. Official nationalism, as it came to be defined, constituted another trope available to countries gaining their independence in the early twentieth century. This nationalism was the attempt of the ruling dynasties in Europe to identify themselves with the nation. The slogan “Nation, Religion, Monarch” coined by the Thai dynasty in the early 1900s sums up the conservative and reactionary character of a nationalism which emptied the popular nationalism of its political liberalism component. The attachment to the nation of the members was  manufactured from above and then foisted upon the members. Invitation into history of the masses was not to be made through expanded suffrage but through compulsory state-controlled primary education, state-organized propaganda, official rewriting of history and militarism.  To put it differently it came from the top.

In sum, nations exist because their members have an attachment to a community which comprises fellow-citizens. They imagine the existence of fellow nationals who live and act in the same space and in the same time. Acts such as reading newspaper rooted this fiction into the reality of everyday life. Nation exist today because once the model of nation-state and nationhood was born with the popular movements in Latin America it became THE model through which people were defining themselves. Different models existed: some popular other top-down. Both however aimed at substantiating the fiction of the existence of a community called nation. Countries who gained the independence after the two world wars became nations by  mixing those model of nation and nationess- be that from above or below. They adapted these tropes so that people residing within their borders could imagine themselves as members of those units. The extent to which nationals bought into this act of imagination explains to a certain extent their successes and failures. The next post will look at other elements which makes nation possible and explain why people feel they have a stake in the nation.


[1] Imagined Communities, Cultural Roots, p.36

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