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What is a Nation? Show more Show less

Are nations ancient or modern? Are they natural or artificial? Are they a tool of liberation or coercion? Despite many predicting globalisation would make them obsolete, nations are now back in fashion in a world where leaders tout America First, the Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese People, and Hindutva. Understanding the nation now seems more important than ever.

Nations are modern creations Show more Show less

Nations only came in to existence from the late 18th century onward due to massive political, social, and economic changes.
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Print capitalism created nations

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Marxism had predicted that nation-states would fade away as it triumphed. By the 1980s the opposite seemed to be happening and Benedict Anderson sought to understand the enduring presence and appeal of nations by examining their origins.

The Argument

Benedict Anderson argues that print capitalism i.e. the business of selling books, newspapers, etc fuelled the rise of nationalism. According to his argument from the late middle ages, Christendom as a coherent and universal political unit was declining, as was the status of Latin as a sacred language underpinning a pan-European culture. Vernaculars like French, English, and German increasingly emerged as languages that were both taught and vitally published in. The latter was fuelled by printers and booksellers who sought to tap into new markets providing material which could be consumed by non-elite non-Latin speaking groups. In the process, they established standardised forms of these languages in which speakers of different dialects of the vernacular were able to communicate, and which also did not evolve as rapidly as Latin did, making the reading of older publications easier. This in turn created new reading communities united based on their ability to read in this new standard vernacular, and separated off from the communities whose vernaculars they could not read. This created a territorial community whose boundaries were delimited by the presence of a particular language. This new sense of a linguistic community was further bolstered by the new forms of published materials that circulated, in particular newspapers and novels, that depicted hundreds if not thousands of different events occurring simultaneously united by their existence within an organic social unit defined by language which the reader was part of. This new sense of community and time increasingly replaced preexisting religious conceptions. These sentiments of community first transformed into nationalism, a political programme with the goal of creating a nation-state as a political entity, during the revolutions in North and South America. There, local creole elites had a sense of common territorially based identity fuelled by shared newspaper cultures and experiences as colonial administrators. This provided a basis for cooperation and justification for revolutions which were launched in defence of local interests against centralising European monarchies. Arguing their right to independence came from their distinctness as a people. They turned to Enlightenment republican theory which argued political legitimacy came from the people i.e. an imagined national community. This also meant determined post-independence attempts to integrate the wider population into the political body of the nation via promotion of official languages, educations, etc... The nation-state was thus created and became the barometer for political legitimacy. Over time this model was increasingly copied across the world for a variety of reasons until it reached its modern ubiquity.

Counter arguments

Ideas of some sort of cohesive national identity identified territorially and separated from other equivalents seem to have been prevalent in pre-modern states such as England, Scotland, France, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam to name a few examples. In all these places this pre-existed vernacular printing on a large scale as well as other processes Anderson described in particular the decline of religion as providing a coherent cultural framework. Arguments which centre nations on a created linguistic and cultural homogeneity fail to provide for nations which have no politically dominant lingua franca such as Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland.


[P1] The rise of print capitalism fuels development of vernacular publishing, and the decline of pan-cultural sacred scripts. [P2] The formation of new reading publics divided along vernacular and the type of material published encourage the development of new conceptions of human community delineated along linguistic lines. [P3] The new sense of community becomes politicised during the revolutions in North and South America, and is used to justify political independence. The idea of a nation-state is born.

Rejecting the premises

[P1] There is evidence of identities we can call nation in societies before the development of print capitalism. [P2]There are examples of nations with no dominant linguistic or cultural group.


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This page was last edited on Tuesday, 3 Dec 2019 at 15:03 UTC