After Greatness, everybody is small

Tom Nairn
3 October 2008

In an OurKingdom essay, Tom Nairn looks at how new forms of nationalism are challenging the established nation-states of an earlier era.

In Nations and Nationalism Ernest Gellner compiled a celebrated and very influential story based on his own family and personal experiences: the supposedly typical transition from ‘Megalomania’ to assorted ‘Ruritanias’ (like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia, etc.). In other areas,  Catalonia, Scotland, East Timor, Quebec, Ireland, and so on, have joined (or are still joining) during what he baptised as the age of nationalism.[1] He argued that this transition was neither willful nor avoidable, under the general circumstances of industrialization, increasingly global commerce, and market-formation. ‘Ruritanians’ (in effect, most populations around the globe enjoying what he called the ‘characteristic anthropological equipment’) found themselves driven towards statehood by the tensions of general development, which could not help being ‘unequal’ — that is,  led by privileged zones and followed (either eagerly or resentfully) by the less well-placed, smaller or (for a time) ‘assimilable’ ethnies. Human cultural diversity (also a given) was far too great for any other solution to work in the longer term, as distinct from transient empires like the French, British, Austro-Hungarian, Great-German, Russian/Soviet, American or Chinese — the ‘Megalomanias’ of early-modern history, each one driven by over-reaching delusions and (usually) military ambitions inseparable from violent conflict, defeat and downfall. [2]

Though the number of new-national states was far less than that of background ethnies, it was sufficient to constitute the modern state-system of international relations, currently around two hundred (with quite a number still in formation). Gellner liked to underline how few nation-states had taken advantage of nationalism, compared to the thousands of ‘potential nations’ prior species-evolution had set going. However, he overdid the irony: not only are there plenty still being created, the process has also generated a number of ‘misfits’.

And globalization has thus far been cramped and distorted by such left-overs. That is, the residual areas and populations of ex-Megalomanes forced to abandon Bigger-is-Better, but without (so far) discovering any coherent alternative. Ex-heartlands like ‘Spain’ (Castile-Aragon), ‘England’ (United Kingdom minus its archipelago peripheries), hexagonal ‘France’ as distinct from the Bretons, Occitans and Savoiards, peninsular ‘Italy’ (famously distinct from actual ‘Italians’), Federal-Russians deprived of some of their ‘other Russias’, and Americans less concerned with leading and inspiring Mankind (along the lines favoured by Presidential candidate Obama).

Over-addicted to Greatness, such light-house populations (and above all their intellectual elites) find (e.g.) ‘little Spain’, ‘little England’, ‘isolationist’ USA etc. uninspiring. They can’t be, or seriously imitate, Ruritanias (formerly despised and mocked); Big-Lad scale-domination is no longer possible; so what version of self-government will make sense for them? The candidate that imposes itself is something like “Hanging On”, or the upkeep of appearances and discernible status, as far as possible: willful eternalization  of the (relatively) recent past, when We counted for Something. What exactly? Well, if uncertainty threatens on this front, history can always be re-invented to suit (as Ruritanian intellos showed, in their day). Premier Gordon Brown has made such new-old thought a speciality, and strives to put it into practice.  Umberto Eco has provided other amusing illustrations in his Putting the Clock Back. Being practical is what matters: the stable continuity of realistic scale and presence, not letting things get ‘out of hand’.[3] Security-Council rules, all the time, albeit with a safely economic bias demonstrating consciousness of ‘The Poor’ (for whom so much remains to be done).

Naturally, Globalization has been interpreted and where possible exploited by these hanging-on theatres . Suitable emphasis has to be placed on the ideology of national interest, standing, ‘achievements’ etc., ideally assisted by safe warfare, permitting emotional mobilization without too much risk of calamity, or enduring commitment: ‘surges’ are good, colonial-seeming permanence is bad. Ordinariness, smallness, non-significance, being ‘just another’ country like the so-and-so’s: that’s the destiny to be avoided at all costs. The formation of ‘Europe’ via first the Maastricht and now the Lisbon Treaties has been that of a ‘shadow’ stuffed-shirt or left-over-land, safely dominated by former big lads, either defeated or of pensionable age, and now sadly unable to keep it up on their own. This is what the Irish voters (like French and Dutch ones earlier) are against: of course they do not trust ‘Them’. They want a democratic confederation, not an old boy’s pseudo-federal club — we don’t yet know which side Gellner’s Czech Republic will come down on.

The United Kingdom under Thatcher and then Blair/Brown (1979-2010) is illustrative of the mainstream trend. The debate about ‘English nationalism’ has shown how it works in practice: preservation of the system behind a smoke-screen of think-tank-British ‘civic’ this and that.[4] Fred Halliday’s ‘sequestration’ thesis depicts how the ex-great manoeuvre to maintain possession and status, as responsible pillars of an ‘international community’ whose tenure must not be farther disturbed or upset: early-modern democracy where possible, authoritarianism where not (and in fact, the former tends to need ever-larger doses of the latter, as Bush, Zapatero, Sarkozy and Blair-Brown have all acknowledged). It is stuffed-shirt rule that remains sacred, often reinforced by be-medalled-tunic rule. The resultant international climate has proved favorable to rule by Generals, from Turkey to Taiwan, Burma and Zimbabwe — often with Generals ostensibly, if slowly, ‘moving towards’ representative government (though the latter may become dispensable as Chinese and New-Russian influences increase).

What megalomane populations need is a much stronger dose of their own medicine: the ‘democracy’ once deemed implicit in the History that refused to end in 1990. Before that, metropolitan intellectuals were always keen to persuade ethnic and other dissenters they should be practical. Wouldn’t you ordinary ‘little guys’ be better off in a larger unit than in a romantic dreamland (etc.)? Well, surely it’s time to turn such pragmatism on themselves. The ex-megalomanes will sooner or later have think of their own smaller futures, as English, little-Russian, North Italians, or whatever. In relation to globality, everybody is rather small, even the Chinese.  It can no longer be perceived as something following capitalist evolution, or naturally ‘building itself up’ via a more prosperous and self-conscious bourgeoisie. Authoritarian capitalism seems quite capable of fostering a middle class aspiring to lead and rule simultaneously, by self-reproduction of authority (whether via a Party, or other institutional vehicles). Nations no longer need an inherited rabble, ‘mobilized’ by ethnic (or would-be ethnic, or pseudo-ethnic) solidarity: that corresponded to Gellner’s conception of forced scale, the accompaniment of first-round industrialization. Second-round (post-Cold War, ‘globalized’) industrialization and re-industrialization needs no such demographic phenomenon.

Gellner’s first-round theory showed how a specific scale was imposed by initial industrialization: what counted was the formation  of markets, and the internal cohesion and communicative culture these demanded. That scale was below that of older dynastic imperia, but far above that of inherited ethno-linguistic groups and city-states. The resultant crystallization of new units (‘nation-states’) was ‘suitable for the conditions now prevailing’, and of course made use of ‘inheritances from the pre-nationalist world’ to determine the new norm for ‘the legitimacy of political units in the modern world’. [5] However, those conditions no longer prevail in quite the same way: this is a good deal of what ‘globalization’ means. The ‘accepted standard’  never entirely prevailed, and today does so less and less. The relatively bigger scale governing formation of both markets and cultures is ceding ground both to global homogeneities and to smaller units of identification and action. This was what Jerry Muller suggested in a recent Foreign Affairs article, ‘Us and Them’ (March-April 2008). By July-August the US homogeneity-gang was forced to answer with a justification of bigness-is-better. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to the rescue with ‘Rethinking the National Interest’, backed up by some academic pundits of exceptionalism. And Muller has replied, claiming that ‘recognizing the enduring power of ethnic nationalism...offers a more realistic appreciation of the dilemmas that will continue to arise in the 21st century’.                                  

As for the rabbles, they can be left to their own devices, as recommended in a new policy tract from Policy Exchange, a UK conservative think tank.[6] Forget about the post-industrial wasteland populations, is the new message. If they can’t get their own act together and claim independence, well, let them migrate. Non-organized immigrant labour forces are more malleable, and canalizable through discipline and function alone. They will fit far better into a globe where the majority is already urbanized. Gellner saw self-organization and mobilization as the answer: the national-identity, new-state riposte. Today’s alternative is to join the migrants, and head for what one might call cell-phone multiculturalism. Once one is better-off in practical terms, roots can be nostalgically cultivated: watered but not politically mobilized. The world is becoming ‘Roseland’ writ large. Whose metropolis it is now matters less: does it really matter if it’s England’s, or Britain’s, or Europe’s Londinium? Give me your mobile number when you decide;  I’ll call back and leave my mobile number on yours.


1 The most recent edition of Nations and Nationalism is from Blackwell Publishing (2006), with an introduction by John Breuilly. See especially ‘A Note on the Weakness of Nationalism’ and ‘Wild and Garden Cultures’, pp. 42-51.

2 On possible origins of human societal diversity, the most interesting recent work has been done by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd: see ‘Built for Speed, Not For Comfort: Darwinian Theory and Human Culture’, in History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, 23 (2001); and also their book The Origin and Evolution of Cultures (O.U.P. 2005). Another essay on ‘The Pleistocene and the Origins of Human Culture’ relates the theory interestingly to the current theme of climate change — albeit to global Ice Age cooling, rather than to the present warming.

3 On this see Fred Halliday’s recent ‘The Politics of Failure’, on the Open Democracy website for May 13, 2008.

4 See for example David Goodhart’s Progressive Nationalism: Citizenship and the Left (Demos, May 2006).

5 Nations and Nationalism (Blackwell edition, 2006) ‘The Transition to an Age of Nationalism’, p.48.

6 Cities Unlimited: Making Urban Regeneration Work, by Tim Leunig and James Swaffield (Aug. 2008). Though previously described as David Cameron’s favored think-tank, to his credit the Conservative Leader described this particular report as ‘insane’.

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