Globalisation and nationalism: the new deal

Tom Nairn
7 March 2008


"Life and culture continue to yield new emergent social entities, new adaptive forms brought into being in order to pursue survival and reproduction both through and in spite of the specific work of capitalism."

Richard N Adams, "The Dynamics of Societal Diversity: Notes from Nicaragua", American Ethnologist, 8/1, 1981


I know, far too much has been said and written already about "globalisation", mondialisation, Globalisierung, and also about their opposite numbers, anti-globalisation, "glocalism" and so on. No one should propose adding to this untidy heap, without doubts and reservations (for a thoughtful mapping of the untidiness, see Perry Anderson, "Jottings on the Conjuncture", New Left Review 48, November-December 2007).

Yet I would like to try my hand again. The only excuse possible is that of approaching the Zeitgeist from a different angle. Rather than adding one more interpretation, I will try to decipher something that is in course of being said, and said not (or not only) by intellectuals, academics and intéllos, the shamans of our age. The emerging message I'm after is the one that may be coming from below, from - to name one point on this compass - the electorate of Scotland.

Tom Nairn is an expert on globalisation, nationalism, British institutions and Scotland. He is innovation professor in Nationalism and Cultural Diversity at the Globalism Institute at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT University), Australia This essay is the text of a lecture - one of the "Edinburgh Lecture" series - delivered in Scotland's capital city on 4 March 2008. It was introduced by Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond. It forms part of a project - "Edgelands" - sponsored by the Australian Research Council for 2008-09

Part of that message was delivered in May 2007, in the vote that returned a Holyrood parliament dominated by the Scottish National Party, leading to the minority government that has followed. It was a message favourable to the independence cause, and seems certain to carry the Scots forward to one or more referenda on the matter fairly soon.

But I suspect that a great deal more than this was already being said, or half-said, or sought for, in this striking shift.

At least part may have come from deeper sources, which surely relate to the current way of the world - "globalisation" and all that - as well as to party struggles, the plight of the British and Scottish Labour Parties, and the weird dilemmas of Westminster's archaic constitution. Political leaders naturally hope people are voting for policies on this and that, after canny calculations of gains and losses; but of course voters are also concerned (often more concerned) with "directions": general inclinations of society and soul, affected by passions or longings that may well be in the background of debate.

Scotland's people flow

There is perhaps a feature of the Scottish electorate that may help us towards such a diagnosis. It's the one indicated by Tom Devine in his The Scottish Nation 1700-2000 (1999), where he argues that the Scots have been the leaders in modern emigration. Comparatively viewed, they appear to have outdone the Greeks, the Irish, Jews, Italians and Norwegians from the 18th to the 20th centuries, and deposited a very extensive global diaspora whose size remains infuriatingly difficult to estimate. Most guesses put it at eight or nine times the size of our present-day population, and research continues today in north America, Australasia and southern Africa to establish both its numbers and its contemporary outlook.

But my point here is less the migrants than as what they left behind, a population unusually affected by so much departure, over such a prolonged period of time - around two and a half centuries. In Scotland, Romany or Gypsy nomads are usually called simply "travelling people"; an appropriate label from residents who, if not travelling themselves, invariably have well-travelled relatives in Calgary, Cape Town, Nova Scotia, Auckland, Chicago or Perth (Western Australia) and who either go there, or receive fairly irregular visits from them and their descendants.

Michael Russell has some amusing phrases about this in his book The Next Big Thing (2007). Wherever you go, he points out, you find that "Insecurity is part of the Scottish condition. We come from somewhere else, and settle where we feel least uncomfortable. We belong to places that we only visit, yet we are visitors in the place where we live..."

My recent travelling from Melbourne to Edinburgh gave me a personal stake in the long-distance-family culture. The dates of leaving my Scots-founded Australian city and university meant that I missed meeting up with a Queensland cousin; but on the other hand I was awarded the chance of catching up with another lot, who were just then visiting the homeland after prospering in the Republic of Ireland.

In his book Devine diagnoses what he calls "Highlandism" as one by-product of this sustained communal haemorrhage: the projection of imagined origins, a famously synthetic folklore of Auld Lang Syne, an identity deploying the most colourful items from successive wardrobes and cabin-trunks, with appropriate music and displays. The least home-bound population on earth has generated the most home-bound and nostalgic ideology of Heimat.

But more than folklore is at stake here. This outstanding (and continuing) haemorrhage from such a small population may have fostered an unusually exposed and outward-looking mentality, a mindset forcibly attuned to a wider view, and to contrasts of culture and custom.

More than most other nations, Scots have been so to speak 'pre-globalized' by such mundane circumstances. This matter-of-fact Weltanschauung has little to do with the new intéllo fad of "cosmopolitanism" - the aloofness deemed ethically appropriate for the globalising times (on this, see Ulrich Beck's "Seven Theses: a New Cosmopolitanism is in the Air", Literaturen [November, 2007] and SignandSight [24 November 2007]).

When Scots explorer John Macdouall Stuart reached the centre of the Australian continent in 1860, during his famed south-north expedition, the flag he proudly planted on a small hill there had to be the Union Jack, not the Saltire. Such was the old 1707 deal, the enchantment of that age. And what one might call the "self-colonisation" implicit in such triumphs has proved much harder to recover from than other, cruder forms of imperial hegemony.

The theory of scale

At which point, let me return to the enchantment of today. In spite of the reservations about "globaloney" I mentioned at the start, some theory of what global circumstances means is of course needed. And here, one way forward in the morass may be to look back more carefully at certain neglected views of nationhood. What I have in mind is the curious question of the scale of modern countries and states. This tends to be taken for granted in most commentary and policy-formation; but should not be. It relates quite directly to what the last century's main theorist of nationalism, Ernest Gellner, always posed as the crucial problem in his field.

Tom Nairn's many books include Faces of Nationalism: Janus Revisited (Verso, 1998), After Britain (Granta, 2000) and Pariah: Misfortunes of the British Kingdom (Verso, 2002), and Global Matrix: Nationalism, Globalism and State-terrorism (Pluto Press, 2005)

Among Tom Nairn's articles on openDemocracy:

"Pariah Kingdom" (24 May 2001)

"The party is over" (22 May 2002)

"America vs Globalisation" (a five-part essay, January-February 2003)

"Britain's tipping-point election" (26 June 2005)

"After the G8 and 7/7: an age of 'democratic warming'" (10 July 2005)

"On the beach: a bonfire of monarchies in Melbourne" (15 November 2005)

"Ending the big 'ism" (26 January 2006)

"The Queen: an elegiac prophecy" (27 September 2006)

"Not on your life" (14 May 2007)

"The sorcerer's birthday: notes from the apprentice" (28 November 2007)

The underlying puzzle has always been not why there are so many nation states and distinct ethnic cultures but - why are there so few. In his classic Nations and Nationalism (1983) the social anthropologist Gellner observes that, although no one will ever know exactly, there can't be less than somewhere between 6,000 and 8,000 identifiable ethno-linguistic populations scattered round the globe.

Why, then, are there less than 200 or so national states? When he was writing in 1983 there were well under two hundred United Nations representatives, and though this number has grown, forecasts for the later 21st century don't usually envisage more than something between 220-230 new (and naturally mostly smaller) independent states.

Gellner's characteristic explanation of this disparity was in terms of overall social and cultural development. The culprit, he argued, had been first-round industrialisation and urbanisation. These were not processes planned by some celestial council from a suitably all-powerful centre, such as Beijing, Delhi, Rome, Madrid (or wherever). No, industrialisation evolved chaotically, in fits and starts, out of the unlikely fringe location of the north Atlantic seaboard, and was marked throughout by chronic unevenness and widespread antagonism.

It was impossible for industries, larger-scale commerce, greater market-places and banks to develop at a small-town or region scale. Nor were they ever likely to be set up by the sprawling dynastic and military empires of antiquity, whose essential concern remained expansion, hierarchy and secure military dominance of an inherited rural world.

By contrast, capitalism (as it would later be called, notably by Scots) was able to evolve only at an intermediate level, within societies smaller than the antique dynasties but much bigger than most ethno-linguistic groups. It demanded the formation of relatively large socio-economic spaces, to be viable.

Viability in that sense may never have been a fixed or unalterable condition. However, in retrospect we perceive that for over two centuries it did come to mean (as it were) "something like France" or like England (in the familiar "Anglo-British" sense): not something like Brittany, Provence, Monaco, Wales or Ireland.

The Scots of course had already situated themselves within the bigger-is-better expansion, via the 1707 Treaty of Union. Their fate was to be the unusual one of successful "self-colonisation" in that world. That is, they avoided conquest or assimilation, and conserved a distinct civil society - but only by accepting (and in fact eagerly embracing and preaching) the broader rules of the new age, as laid down by France, England and other more viable polities.

As Gellner points out, such rules required a sufficiently common culture and language, and the cultivation of popular assent. This should not (incidentally) be confused with present-day "nationalism". Nationhood and nationality culture and politics may have been primordial; but the "-ism" is a different and far more peculiar story. Nationalism didn't enter common parlance until the last third of the 19th century, after Abraham Lincoln's victory over the American secessionists, and the Franco-Prussian war.

Gellner always emphasised the general point, and newer historical analyses have strongly confirmed it. In all languages, nationalism became commonsense in conjunction with "imperialism", as part of the climate leading into the world wars, and finally the cold war of 1947-1989.

"Nationalism is not the awakening and assertion of mythical, supposedly natural and given units..." is how he sums it up; "It is, on the contrary, the crystallisation of new units, suitable for the conditions now prevailing", by which he means these emergent circumstances of primarily capitalist socio-economic development, at first in the north Atlantic area and then more globally. (3)

It was those conditions that favoured the norm, the typical scale and standards for the political entities of (approximately) 1789-1989. British nationalism was of course just one chapter in that story, a value-parade both enforced and widely exported - and defended down to the present with mounting desperation by New Labour governments.

From fixed to sliding scale

But what I want to suggest is that it is precisely "those conditions" that have changed, and are changing. Ernest Gellner was thinking in the 1980s, when the old identikit "nation-state" rules remained in place, albeit shakily. But one aspect of globalisation has (notoriously) been the collapse of at least some of these rules. When commentators declare so confidently that it "undermines" borders and flags, as well as customs-posts, they usually fail to make a vital distinction.

Yes, possibly blood is draining out of the "-ism"; but not out of nationalities, identities, cultural contrasts, and the wish (or the determination) to have, or to win, different forms of collective "say" in the brave new globe. If we simply deconstruct his historic argument it follows, surely, that scale also must be changing its significance.

However, speculation in this zone has been limited by a curious monotheism of outlook: the child, doubtless, of Christianity, Islam, and their kind, as well as of the odd theatre of the cold war's iron curtain (see Patrick Wright's illuminating analysis, Iron Curtain: From Theatre to Cold War [Oxford University Press, 2007]).

Globality is decreed in advance to possess one overall or commanding meaning: either neo-liberal progress or some new universal oppression, choose your side. In fact, what globality may be ushering in is more like a range of conflicts, it may be too much to say "battlefields" - but certainly terrains of decision, alternative directions and possibilities. Umberto Eco has identified one of these alternatives clearly, and amusingly, in his Turning Back the Clock (2007).

Look at the world since the first Gulf war of 1991, he asks: just who is so plainly clinging to past patterns and habits? We see the explosion and spread of what he labels "neo-war", the curse of United States-led globalisation. That is, of threatened and actual incursions against largely phantasmagoric enemies like "terrorism" and Islam or (on the other side) "the west" and crusade-style Christianity or evangelism.

The aim of these is to maintain and mobilise the mass public opinion upon which great (or would-be great) power élites still depend, against the individualism, privatisation and indifference that accompany so many transnational blessings and successes. Societies have mutated far more than states. And this is why the latter find themselves tempted into another version of the 19th century restoration that tried to impose stability, values (etc.) between Napoleon the First and the "springtime of nations" in 1848. Gordon Brown and George W Bush can't literally put the clock back, any more than Prince Metternich could; but at least they can try to slow it down a bit, with plausible aggression (ideally involving mass-destruction threats), and of course the new forms of persuasion provided by the revolution in communications.

The guilty parties here are unmistakable: they are the old lags of Gellner's bigger-and-better epoch, plus new members and applicants to join the body-builders' club - countries endowed with that favourite attribute of British leaders, "clout". America First, naturally, but with Great Spain, Great Russia, Great Serbia alongside cheerleader Great Britain, plus rising muscle-flexers like India, Indonesia, Iran and China.

At the same time as it tries to take over globalisation, this great-at-all-costs club is busy acquiring its own academic credentials as well. That is, professors who seriously believe that the globe is safer - more secure - with well-padded, first-round veterans in control. An astonishing volume entitled No More States? Globalisation, National Self-Determination and Terrorism (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006) appeared from the stables of University College, Los Angeles, arguing not only that there should be no more of these small nuisances, but that possibly a reversal of thrust may be possible, in the sense of "agglomerationism" - returns to one or other metropolitan fold by populations tempted astray by romantic delusion or bad verse.

In case anyone fears I'm making this up, let me quote from co-editor Richard Rosecrance's summing up:

"Potentially dissident Scotland, the Basques, Quebec and other provincial populations have gradually come to see the federation-metropole as a less hostile environment, and their independence movements have declined in proportion...(hence) few new states are likely to be created...It is possible, even, that the number of fully independent states may decline as political units begin to merge with each other..."

This conclusion had the good luck to be published not long before the 2007 elections in the United Kingdom, and in that sense comment may be superfluous. But the general sense is unmistakable: global history must be frozen in its tracks, for the convenience of existing agglomerations, including the United States and loyal fan-club Great Britain.

Only thus will stability and reasonable global order prevail. "Bigger is better" was therefore not just a phase social evolution had to go through, to improve the general lot. No, it has to be made permanent, virtually eternalized, in the imagined interest of the species, indistinguishable from the established interest of the body-builders' club.

The stowaways club

And on the other side, what about the no-hopers, nuisances and parasites? Here the list could hardly be more different, but in newly surprising ways. The best approach to it remains Foreign Policy magazine's "Globalisation Index", a now long-running attempt to estimate and compare national successes and failures of the global times. The index takes a variety of social and cultural variables into account, not only "GDP" and other strictly economic data. I only have the 2006 "top twenty" list with me, and have only just received 2007.

But in fact its overall aspect has changed little from year to year: "Singapore, Switzerland, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, Netherlands, Sweden, New Zealand, Finland, Norway, Israel, the Czech Republic" and so on and on, down to Slovenia, currently at number twenty (as well as providing us with the head of the European Union commission). I note that the new entrants for 2007 are Hong Kong, Jordan and Estonia. (For a persuasive analysis of the Welsh contribution, see John Osmond, Assembly to Senned: the Convention and the Move Towards Legislative Powers [Institute for Welsh Affairs, January 2008]).

True, there are also some exceptional entries. The United States appears in the top twenty because (as the editors apologetically explain) in spite of manufacturing decline and job exports, it shows up because most of the new globe's spare cash has been washing irresistibly through it, at least until the regrettable "sub-prime" property hitches of 2007. And the UK also figures, for related if more peculiar reasons: the inherited institutional role of City of London institutions in all such massive financial flows (at least, until the weird lapse of Northern Rock, now part of the state).

However, the broader picture remains unmistakable: a springtime of victorious dwarves, one might say. No more convincing illustration of globalisation's new "sliding scale" can be imagined. And with equal ease, anyone can see Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland queueing up to claim their places.

Sooner or later, one or more formal referenda will be of course be required for such entrants, but a kind of referendum movement, or direction, is already under way in Scotland, a gathering mixture of questioning and hardening conviction.

Among Scots this takes the form of a firming "self-confidence", a kind of matter-of-factness I mentioned earlier. Again, Michael Russell puts it well in The Next Big Thing, where he points out the most significant trait of the post-May 2007 minority government may be its contribution to this cementing process:

The real main purpose of our parliament may merely be to stop us moving back - to create the space in which we can get on and learn some other lessons. Lessons of confidence, and self-confidence. Lessons about who we really are, and what we really want... (perhaps the most suggestive text on this issue is Paul Sweeney's Ireland's Economic Success: Reasons and Prospects [New Island Publishers, Dublin, 2008]).

Societal diversity

As we have seen, the old question used to be: "Are you big enough to survive and develop in an industrialising world?" The advent of globalisation is replacing this with another, something close to: "Are you small and smart enough to survive, and claim a positive place in the common global culture?" Not too surprisingly, the most common answer coming up from the bowels and steerage accommodation of the common ship is: "You bet we are...nor do we mean to be deprived of the chance."

I think a sense of this may have been part of the election groundswell last May, in both Wales and Scotland - and maybe most notably in Scotland, for the historical reasons already noted. On the emerging global vessel, it's presence or nothing: speak up and act up, or the already existing officer and first-class passengers - the body-builders' club in charge of the bridge - will not only stay there, but reinforce their grip over the lower-deck rabble of dependents, servants and migrating stowaways.

In a remarkable essay called simply "Presence" (History & Theory 45, October 2006) the Dutch social historian Eelco Runia has made the point with a humorous metaphor.

Globalisation can't help meaning that we're all "in the same boat"; but on this noble vessel, most of the occupants can't help being virtual "stowaways", travelling either on fake documents and overdrawn credit-cards, or just secretly, smuggled or bribed aboard at night or in disguise. Now however, as the global process continues its erratic and ambiguous course, the rabble has begun appearing on deck, in broad daylight. And not just for the fresh air, or to admire the views.

No, they want their tickets. It's time they were recognised, and released from the dank lower levels of ballast, coiled ropes and awful stairwells. "Equality" is the standard demand, accompanied naturally by demands for use of the cafeteria and lounges, spare beds and some formal presence by representation on the bridge. There used to be bigger-is-best techniques for avoiding this nuisance: alibis like "federalism", "devolution" - home rule for the steerage classes, as it were. Allow them enough folk-dancing and local government, that'll keep them out of trouble.

But of course "presence" in Eelco Runia's sense represents none of these palliatives. The spirit of Gertrude Stein is turning out to be quite strong up on deck, something to do with the democratic air. On this bigger, final boat everyone is now aboard, 'self-government' is self-government is self-government. What Charles Stewart Parnell meant in the famous remark about nobody having "a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation", in the sense of its will and sovereignty.

The motto prefixes the Scottish government's "national conversation" on Scotland's future. In the new context this means not (or not necessarily) "6,000 or 8,000" states corresponding to Gellner's sources of human diversity. But it does imply that no court of fixers should decide who is in or out, or what their relationships with one another should be.

In practice, though, it probably signifies at least something like the foreseeable figures I mentioned before - around 220-230 sovereignties over this century and next. To an increasing degree these are likely to relate to one another via formulae of confederation, quite different from federalism, subsidiarity, devolved regionalism and other dodges of the bygone era. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are, like many other smaller entities around the globe, simply joining the queue to be heard on that wavelength.

Across the universals

And it's worth emphasising something else too, at this point - something fundamental that globalisation is bringing home, everywhere and to everybody.

While the threats of globalising uniformity are often exaggerated, they do remain real enough to have brought something else, something really new, into recognizable perspective. One might call this, the threat to Babel. Globalisation can't help a degree of sameness; but, more strongly than empires of the past, the new mode may be forcing something more profound into existence.

The counter to "all-the-same-ism" can only be cross-fertilisation, the societal equivalent of Charles Darwin's new species and forms. That's what "the universal" has always been, the capacity to transcend, to fuse, to breed hybrid novelty rather than merely "agglomerate" in Richard Rosecrance's sense.

However, the power to do this rests at bottom upon more than the maintenance of diversity - it demands that differentiation be favoured, be positively fostered, by globalisation. Globalisation will have to perpetuate Babel, as well as confronting all its difficulties and contradictions.

At bottom, the reason is that human universals arise only via contrasts, by the transcendence of borders, via cross-fertilisation, through hybrids and surprises, from the unheard-of, in communities not just "imagined" in Benedict Anderson's celebrated phrase, but previously unimaginable, from presences whose spell makes the past into a bearable future.

And how on earth can anything like that be achieved without "independence"? In this context independence surely isn't - or isn't only - backward-looking or inward-looking me-first, chip on the shoulder time, and so on. It's more like seizing the chance - and making sure it isn't the last chance - as the clock-hands move so decisively forward, the chance to contribute and to endure (or increase) with an emerging purpose not yet wholly known, because (as Eelco Runia puts it) societies must retain, or rediscover the power and confidence to surprise themselves. As (I would argue) both Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did in May 2007.

"Absolute instinct?"

With all its daft twists and turns, and hopeless exaggerations, globalisation is providing new stimuli for nationality-politics. Not so much for "nationalism" in the late 19th and 20th century sense, but definitely for the emergence of new, smaller communities of will and purpose - the nations of a new and deeply different age.

Mistaken theorists of an earlier time - myself among them - used to complain about Scotland missing or neglecting its national opportunities, or failing to participate in earlier waves of anti-colonial liberation.

But of course, the Scots were never colonised: as I pointed out earlier, they "did it themselves" via "self-colonisation", the subordinate affirmation of a kind of flightless or contained nationality, which implied exemption from many rules of the former imperial (and then anti-imperial) world.

But today that world, those rules, now are ended, and others are in formation. To resume the power of flight simply means participation in the new forms and rules, alongside many others.

It's a matter-of-fact need, neither too late nor too soon, and I suspect that something of this has already sunk into popular sensibility - the nascent "common sense" of a different, dawning moment in history, the moment when Eelco Runia's "presence" is possible for us, as well as for "them" (up, out there).

There are endless problems and pitfalls as well, sure; but my task of summing up is also easy, since someone else has already said what I've been trying to put across this evening, only much more eloquently. So let the last word rest where it should, with our very own, dear Edwin Morgan. In 1991 he published a collection, Hold Hands Among the Atoms - gathered in 1994 in a larger volume, Sweeping out the Dark - that included the lines called simply: "Difference":

"The endless variousness is all for praises.

The faces, passing, never make an empire...

...You think not?

You'd rather have the second-best as long as

millions get it? - Mission, you cry, the mission!...


The endless variousness evolves, the empire

expires in frozen edicts, you can skate there,

but soon you're off the edge...


...The faces

pass, the individuals, how there can be such

difference we do not know but what we do know

is that an absolute instinct loves it different,

the world, the dialectic, the packed coaches

whistling at daybreak through the patched countries."


Anthony Barnett of OurKIngdom attended the Edinburgh Lecture and reports on the event with a picture here.


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