Theorizing Nation Formation in the Context of Imperialism and Globalism

Paul James. The Sage Handbook of Nations and Nationalism. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Krishan Kumar. 2006. Sage Publishing.

Just as the nation-state did not die at the end of the twentieth century—despite claims of its imminent demise—its emergence as a social form in the nineteenth century was neither a creation ex nihilo nor a specifiable moment of birth. In that period we saw for the first time the uneven merging of national communities and state polities to form nation-states, but ‘the nation’ as a social form has a much longer history. In other words, nations and states can only be understood in the long run of uneven and changing global history. This chapter suggests that understanding the matrix of nationalism, the nation and the nation-state requires as one line of enquiry a recognition that different kinds of nation formation have emerged across world history in the context of the dominance of different ways of living and being: traditionalism, modernism and postmodernism. Traditional nations—the medieval natio, for example—arose in the context of communities of persons lifted out of place and thrown together in contexts such as universities, courts, monasteries and barracks that brought them face to face with people from other cultures. Traditional nations cannot be understood by simply reading backwards from our understanding of modern nations. As I will argue, modern nations are much more abstract communities and are formed in the context of globalizing practices of production, exchange, communication and enquiry, practices that change the nature of how people live in time and space. Postmodern nations have yet to emerge as such, but in the present, we are seeing continuing structures of modernism increasingly overlayed by practices and subjectivities of postmodernism, including postmodern nationalism. This is evidenced, for example, in the ideology that the extension of the national interest has no spatial limits and a particular nation can be exemplary for all.

This discontinuous but long-term history makes theorizing nation formation an incredibly complex process. It also suggests a second line of enquiry that treats nation formation and globalization as interconnected rather than simply antithetical. Modern nation formation, in particular, can only be understood in the context of historically and ontologically changing patterns of imperialism and globalization. In other words, the formation of the modern nation-state and the burgeoning of modern globalization, were bound up with each other.

In their modern form, they burgeoned across the same period of the mid-nineteenth century into the twentieth. This argument seems counterintuitive in the context of the current tensions as processes associated with contemporary globalization contribute to the reconstitution of the framework of state sovereignty. However, in conjunction with the argument about the changing form of both globalization and nation formation, this begins to make sense. These two lines of narrative—the changing nature of nation formation and the changing context of globalization—weave through the present chapter.

The underlying premises of the discussion thus run as follows: Proposition 1 Just as the nation-state is not about to disappear, it did not suddenly appear in history. There is no first nation-state and there is no date that marks the beginning of the nation-state as a social formation. The best that we can say is that a motley collection of modern republics and constitutional monarchies emerged as a globalizing system of nation-states in the mid-nineteenth century and that this had begun to consolidate by the beginning of the twentieth as the dominant global system of polity-communities. In other words, the nation-state system is a globalizing phenomenon. The development of this system coincided with a particular expression of a globalizing mode of organization called ‘rationalizing bureaucracy’—namely the modern state—as it came to surpass all other institutional forms for organizing political power.

Proposition 2 Across the globe, nation formation as we know it developed with the changing modes of practice associated with the dominance of modernism. However, though modern nations are modern constructions (note the apparent tautology), they are not simply so. Nation formation involves both deep continuities and radical discontinuities with traditional (including sacredly conceived) ways of life. There were traditional nations or natio long before the rise of modern nations; at the same time most modern nations have no continuous relationship to those earlier traditional nations.

Proposition 3 Nation-states—as distinct from the much older phenomenon of nations—first emerged during the period of heightening modern globalization. In other words, modern nation formation and modern global formation were born during the same period out of the same processes—that is, through the same abstracting modes of practice: capitalist production, print communication, commodity exchange, bureaucratic organization and rationalized analytic enquiry. This simple historical reality should at least give pause to those who would argue that globalization is in essential opposition to the nation-state.

Proposition 4 It is the galloping and overt dominance of these very processes of abstract structuring—experienced as global flows of capital and culture—that, ironically, is giving rise to the sense that the nation-state faces an impending crisis, and that the social whole is collapsing into fragments. However, this does not mean that the nation as a form of community is about to disappear. In fact, national identity is being vigorously reasserted, whether it is in the classically modern form of a million soldiers massing on the India-Pakistan border or as autonomous individuals walking the postmodern streets of a Hip Hop Nation. Nations, like other post-tribal territorial communities, are changing fundamentally—with the placements and relationships between persons at the level of the face-to-face becoming more contingent and fragmented. However, rather than becoming anachronistic vestiges of a passing world, nations are becoming more contradictorily stretched between traditional, modern and postmodern ways of living.

In short the contemporary nation is layered in contradiction. The contemporary nation—secularized, horizontal, currently dominated by modernist practices and concerns—contradictorily grounds its subjectivities in the very categories that, at another level, have been substantially reconstituted. Three such grounding categories are particularly relevant here: relations of embodied connection, times of sacred recollection and places of enduring nature. The use of the concept of grounding here is intentional. It marks a clear distinction from the prominent modernist theorists of nationalism such as Ernest Gellner (1998), Anthony Giddens (1985), and even Benedict Anderson (1983), who tend to treat these categorical elements as the mere traditional content, re-fabricated for a modern context. By contrast, I am suggesting that these things still have categorical meaning as part of the contradictory form of the nation-state in a globalizing world. This continuity-discontinuity has become clearer as the modern connection between nation and state has become increasingly problematized.

At the same time, the argument presented here is also very different from that presented by historians such as Leah Greenfield or Adrian Hastings. Greenfield (1993) traces what she claims are continuities in the rise of the nation back to early sixteenth-century England. She bases her argument tenuously on a ‘semantic transformation’ that drew the word ‘nation’ together with ‘people,’ supposedly signalling ‘the emergence of the first nation in the world, in the sense in which the word is understood today’ (1993: 6). Hastings (1997) pushes this claim back further to the Saxon times at the end of the tenth century, again based on language, particularly as it was regularized as a specific vernacular for the translation of the Bible. By contrast, this chapter argues that modern nations are lived communities that emerged in the globalizing generalization of modes of practice that came to affect everyone across the world, however unevenly. In this argument, the development of a vernacular literary language or a changed definition of the concept of ‘nation’ expresses only the abstraction of a few before their time as they worked in the abstracting medium of writing—in particular, groupings of intellectuals and clerics.

Across the Traditional-Modern Divide

The question of different forms of nationhood takes us directly into a debate that continues to dominate the nationalism literature: the traditionalism-modernism question. There has been little theoretical progress in this area beyond the debates over deep ethnic origins versus fabricated modern structurings. The most revealing example of this debate was that between Ernest Gellner (1996) and Anthony Smith (1996) in the pages of Nations and Nationalism, but in the end it was left hanging. On the one hand, the radical modernists overplay the break between traditional and modern societies. When Ernest Gellner says that nationalism was possible only through the changes wrought by modern industrialism, the evidence suggests that his theory is more applicable to the nation-state than to the nation as a long-run, but fundamentally changing, form of community. On the other hand, the ethno-symbolists tend to give a descriptive and factorial account of the continuities, without providing us with a way of theorizing the discontinuities. When Anthony Smith says that the basis of the modern nation is usually a long-run ethnic community, the genealogical accuracy of his position depends upon treating the national recovery of a unified ethnic past as a one-dimensional matter of retrieving symbolic content. It misses out on the matter of subjectivity being unevenly reconstituted in the context of changing social form. When Benedict Anderson says that the nation has to be understood in terms of the faltering grip of the great religious communities upon people’s imagination, what he is describing is the rise of a subjectivity of modernnational reflexivity—not the full sense of nation formation as it simultaneously carries forward and reworks traditionally located subjectivities. Hence, the sixth summarizing argument of the chapter can be expressed as follows:

Proposition 5 Rather than replacing traditionalism in a revolutionary and epochal shift, modernism emerged unevenly and across a long period of change and upheaval as the dominant ontological formation. These practices and subjectivities of modernism have come to interconnect the globe at one level, but they have not changed everything or completely swept earlier formations aside.

As any area-specialist would understand, there is a deep and contradictory relationship between traditionalism and modernism, both in the past and in all contemporary national societies. The current ‘revival’ of nationalistic Islam in Aceh, for example, carries all these tensions. The 1976 Achehnese Declaration of Independence carries an archetypical modernist claim for a primordial past:

We, the people of Acheh, Sumatra, exercising our right of self-determination, and protecting our historic right of eminent domain to our fatherland, do hereby declare ourselves free and independent from all political control of the foreign regime of Jakarta and the alien people of the Island of Java. Our fatherland Acheh, Sumatra, had always been a free and independent sovereign State since the world began. (Cited in Knapman 2001)

There you have it: a modernist argument for an essentialism of identity ‘since the world began.’ It is an argument that contradictorily cuts straight across the rational interpretative relativism of the modernist mode of inquiry. Modernist claims for the deep continuity of nations are rarely now made in such stark primordialist terms, nevertheless even when historical/primordial claims come mediated by more rationalized inquiry they still tend to look back to a pre-modern continuous past. For example, for their rendition of the Acehnese chronology showing that their nation began before the colonial incursion, the writers for the website draw upon the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta Encyclopedia. Without a notion of levels—that is, an understanding of overlaying levels of tribalism, traditionalism, modernism, and most recently postmodernism—the problems of explaining this intersecting set of contradictory claims to knowledge remain intractable, including why they feel it necessary to project claims about their nation on the World Wide Web, and why they felt it legitimate to draw upon a populist global text such as Encarta Encyclopedia.

The contemporary nation as an abstract community of strangers stretched across state-administered abstracted territory, is both projected globally and calls back upon the embodied subjectivities of more traditional forms of community, including traditional ‘ethnic’ community (or ethnie in Anthony Smith’s (1996) terms). However, as a dominant formation it only comes into being under conditions of the emerging dominance of globalizing modernism. In these terms, Ernest Gellner would, for example, rightly say that it is rare for nations to be seen as objectively connected by a verifiable genealogy linking the whole society—the act of census data-collection just documents an already-existent civil nation and incorporates ethnicity as one marker of modern nationality. This is true; however, it is not the point. No communities beyond the immediacies of family are ever formed along one-to-one bloodlines.

A complicated example comes from Somalia, where according to Islamic tradition the whole of the nation is linked by one intricate genealogical tree. The tree from which the ancestor-king descends is both mythological and doubly abstracted. It is abstracted as an icon—the sacred tree, sycamore—and as the genealogical tree that can be memorized graphically or drawn as lines on paper: an abstract but livedtableau. Moreover, it is the representation of a community that will never all meet together. In this way, the modern nation can leave genealogical placement behind or carry traditional genealogical placement to a further level of abstraction—and carry it, it most often does. National genealogy can thus bear two forms of truth: old and new, traditional and modern. However, when Abdalla Omar Mansur (1995) sets out to interrogate the authenticity of such a claim by looking at its epistemological logic he completely misunderstands the nature of this mythology. It doesn’t matter that different tribal groupings have different narrative versions of the creation story of the stranger coming down from the sacred tree, or that the Qurianic version links the motif of the man in the tree to Moses whereas others do not. What we have here is an intersection of tribal forms (including the Daarood and Ajuuran clans) and traditional forms of inquiry and knowledge (the Islamic religion), together with modern nation formation (the Somali nation), all interpreted through a globalizing postmodern ideology—the nation as ‘invention.’

Contrary to the ‘invention of nations’ thesis, persons can believe as practical consciousness that the mythology is, in the tribal or traditional sense, true, and at the same time, if pressed, accept as reflexive consciousness that nations are not literally held together as a single documentable tree of blood-by-birth. Moreover, even at a reflexive level the categories of life and death continue to inhere in the modern nation. They do so not as the putatively kinship-based idea of a single founding family but as the ideas of living in the territorial place of one’s forebears and at times of crisis self-actively putting one’s life on the line for one’s nation. The verities of blood and soil become the metaphors of the modern nation, and these metaphors, though not so directly expressed as under Adolf Hitler’s Germany, continue to permeate the language of even the most civic of nation-states. A tragic contemporary example is found in the discourses of the martyrs/suicide bombers of Palestine as they confront the modern militarized state of Israel.

Anthony Smith (1996) would thus say that this shows that ethnic embodiment is often important to the sense of nationhood. And of course in many cases—though not including Indonesia or Singapore or Australia or the United States of America—he would also be right. However, it tells us little about the structural changes, objective and subjective, that make ethnicity a symbolic marker, drawn upon across the globe in proclaiming the formations of nations. By contrast, I have been pressing to have these themes of traditionalism and modernism understood in terms of an argument about ontological formations as unevenly layered across each other, rather than as epochal replacements of prior formations. The themes of extended genealogy and abstract bloodline point to the continuities and discontinuities of social formation across different ontological formations, and it suggests that a ‘levels’ argument thus provides a way out of the ‘ethnic roots/modern structures’ dilemma.

There are methodological traps here for the unwary. The most obvious trap is to treat the constitutive foundations of tribalism and traditionalism as the basis of the modern (contradictory) nation. This, in other words, entails forgetting a primary insight of comparative social theory: nations are not tribes, even if tribes can become nations. By the same argument, ethnicity is not the basis of the modern nation. Moreover, ‘ethnicity’ is itself a modern phenomenon, not a pre-modern expression of genealogical connection. That is why Anthony Smith (1996) has to use the French term ethnie rather than ‘ethnic community.’ ‘Ethnicity,’ in the argument of this chapter, is the modern name given to one way of subjectively embedding the more abstract relations of the modern nation in more concrete ontological categories of embodiment, temporality and spatiality Ethnicity is important and relates to subject/objective relations of embodiment, but it is not so important that it warrants lifting above other ontological categories such as tradition and future common fate (temporality) or place and territory-in-common (spatiality). Modern empire-nations as diverse as Indonesia and the United States are cases where issues of temporality and spatiality have been officially emphasized over and above questions of ethnicity. This relates to a further major issue on which this chapter departs from the mainstream writings, the question of the relationship between ethnicity and territory.

Proposition 6 The distinction between territoriality and ethnicity is useful, but the distinction between ‘territorial nation’ (Western) and ‘ethnic nation’ (Eastern) collapses into a heap of qualifications. Nations in both the East and the West were formed through interwoven processes that drew them into relation to each other. In particular, they were formed in the context of relations of imperial expansion and the clash of empires, East and West.

There is a tendency, following a long tradition from Hans Kohn onwards, to treat the analytic distinction between ‘territorial nations’ and ‘ethnic nations’ as the basis of two distinct models of nation formation. This leads to a tortured narrative about the sequence of nation formation. In this story, first came the ‘territorial nations’ in the West. Supposedly, for some unspecified time, territoriality formed the only concept of the nation. Then, those European states found that it only worked if they also developed a shared culture of myths and symbols. Alongside this development, but more gradually and as a separate process, there emerged ethnic nations on the basis of pre-existing ethnic ties: Germany, which was also a bit territorial; and Eastern Europe and the Middle East, more prominently ethnic. Later, when the political elites of Asia and Africa decided to create nations they first tried the Western model, but were then compelled by the ‘logic of the situation’ to form new myths and symbols.

Who were these first ‘territorial nations’ that could take their ethnic elements for granted? First, it should be said, they were territorial states or empires, not territorial nations. Secondly, these states could take ethnicity for granted before the nineteenth century because ethnicity as distinct from blood ties (genealogy) was not for anyone at that time an active category of self-identification. The ‘ethnic revival’ and the positive use of the concept of ‘ethnicity’ occurred in these states as they became nation-states. If we take one of the oft-used examples, the French, we find an amalgam of cultures and regions (ethnies if you like, but only as a retrospective appellation) brought together through changing modes of practice across the nineteenth century. Nation formation was evidenced in such apparently banal processes as military conscription (beginning in the late eighteenth century), railways (from the 1850s), compulsory and secular education (from the early 1880s) and the generalization of print distribution and radio broadcasting from the end of the century. These were all developments that were occurring in different places around the world. In this case an empire-state was extending its territorial hold and naming itself as a nation.

However, even despite the self-conscious territorial organization of the nation-state, it was not until the beginning of the twentieth century that this could be taken for granted. Even then we can list the continuing ethnic-territorial cultures that could have become nation-states: (1) the Burgundians in eastern France, a people of Scandinavian origin whose language had died out since their incorporation into the French state at the end of the fifteenth century, but who have carried forth a regional identity to the present day; (2) the Basques from the south-west border of France and Spain who have asserted for themselves the national legitimacy of a government of Euskadi; (3) the Bretons, from the north-west peninsular of France, who revived the Breton language at the end of the nineteenth century as a response to Francification, not the other way round; (4) the Provençales, who still use the language of Occitan or langue d’oc, though as a private rather than public language, and sustain a sense of cultural difference through folk revivals and tourism; (5) the Corsicans, who from the late 1960s have sponsored strong movements for regional autonomy or semi-autonomy; and (6) the Catalans, from the south-east border of France and Spain (including Andorra), who still feel a strong cultural, though not political, nationalism drawing upon the distinct and old language of Catalan.

This tendency to treat patchwork Western territorial states such as France as if they were already territorial nations is related to a tendency to treat the features of being a nation as intrinsically Western. This is simply a category mistake. There is nothing about the notions of ‘territoriality’ or ‘political culture’ or ‘legal codes,’ for example, that makes them ‘Western.’ Certainly the dominant Western mode of organization involves a certain form of abstract territoriality and sovereignty over the landscape, however the absolutist states (or what some writers too easily call ‘the nations’) of England and France did this by virtue of their transition to modern forms of juridical framing—not by virtue of being ‘Western.’ We only have to compare these to the approaches to territory and culture in the ‘Eastern’ state of Japan to see how shaky the categories become (Anderson 2000/1). Japan, like China, had long been a territorial state with established legal codes and conceptions of sovereignty. The Tokugawa modernizing revolution of the late nineteenth century was certainly influenced in part by Western-educated intellectuals, but it also restored the traditional emperor as the essence of the national polity, or kokutai. This carries through our theme of the contradiction of traditionalism and modernism.

Proposition 7 European imperial expansion, in the context of fundamental shifts in the modes of practice, was fundamental to nation formation, but this does not mean that Europe provided the blueprint for nation-state formation. Imperial expansion provided the context for a globalizing relation that saw nation-states formed across the world in relation to each other. Each nation-state was ‘unique,’ but only made sense in relation to other nation-states.

When some writers argue that the earliest cases of territorial nations were in the West—England, France, Spain, the Netherlands and later Russia—there is a further question of analytical anachronism here that needs to be addressed. So far I have argued that though these polities were certainly long-run territorial entities that later became nations, it does not make them continuous nations, or at least it does not make them nations back then. It should however be said that there were ‘nations’ prior to the nineteenth century, but they were not nation-states, and they were not ‘territorial nations.’ As a short-hand response to the existence of nations prior to the nation-state, the different ‘stages’ in the history of nations, nationalism and nation-states can be set out as a series of moments. Woven into these moments are practices of imperialism and globalization.

The concept of natio existed in the medieval period and earlier, but it meant something completely different from the modern sense of the word ‘nation’: first, in archaic definitions the concept of natio was used as co-extensive with that of ‘tribe,’ or what have been referred to as ethnie. Secondly, it referred to traditional communities of erstwhile strangers who found common purpose with each other under conditions of being lifted out of their locales into new settings of face-to-face interaction. This occurred in places such as monasteries, universities and military barracks, places that institutionally marked the traditional imperial extension of states and churches. The only commonality in this second case with the modern nation is that these communities—groups that we can call traditional nations, assuming all the unusual ontological weight that the adjective ‘traditional’ has to carry in this context—were abstracted communities forced to examine basic issues of embodiment, temporality and spatiality They were communities of fate, but they were not territorial nations.

From the sixteenth century in England, but also in other places such as the Netherlands, the concept of the ‘nation’ went through a stage of politicization. However, it was associated with the genealogically connected aristocratic ruling classes or the emergent groupings of persons of learning, the new intellectually trained of a country or region, rather than with the general population of the realm. Despite the language of ‘nation’-ness, the predominant political structure remained from the top firmly that of traditional kingdom or empire, and from the bottom, village or parish. The unwashed masses did not care to be part of any putative nation, nor were they invited to be so. In this third manifestation of traditional communities of common fate, traditional nations were only territorial to the extent that they were co-extensive sometimes with kingdoms, sometimes counties and sometimes empires. This was the period of early-modern globalization as European states in competition with others extended their power in the New Worlds. It was, in short, the period of the emergence of globalizing capitalism (Wolf 1982).

From the late eighteenth century we started to get intellectual and political creeds about ‘nationalism’ as European philosophers, theologians, composers and poets ‘discovered’ the concept. However, as I have been implicitly arguing, naming the thing does mean that the thing is exclusive to the places that first name it. Nevertheless, this period marked the rise of modern nationalism as a self-conscious European philosophy. It is the period that Roland Robertson (1992) calls the ‘incipient stage’ of globalization, when we saw the crystallization of conceptions of formalized international relations.

The late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries saw the emergence of explicitly nationalist movements in the Americas, Europe and parts of Asia. These movements rose before most of the old absolutist states, kingdoms and empires began to see themselves as territorial nations. This simple fact is an important challenge to the idea of pre-nineteenth century, pre-nationalist territorial nation-states.

Across the nineteenth century, public spheres developed in different places across the globe that broadened the sense of the ‘public’ beyond the court or town square. This development occurred in association with ideologies of public sovereignty, democracy and national citizenship, and was an important ideological backdrop to the still emerging nation-state system. They depended upon a changing mode of communication that drew a reading public into political consequence, but also began to globalize communications.

It was not until the late nineteenth century that the uneasy conjunction of national citizenry and abstract state really became established, forming in some cases what can be now called the classical modernnation-states. It is important to remember that the old empires carried through into the next century as viable polities, but also that the first wave of nation-states was formed in the context of classical imperialism, including what has been called the ‘Scramble for Africa.’ This was the period that Roland Robertson (1992) calls the ‘takeoff phase of modern globalization or Robbie Robertson (2003) calls the Second Wave of Globalization.

The short twentieth century featured the ‘great wars’ of territorial nationalism, and the liberation movements of modern tribalism and neo-traditionalism. During this period new nation-states emerged in the Third World, but they also formed in the West, including Yugoslavia, and its subsequent breakaways.

The late twentieth century and early twenty-first century saw the rise of a new subjectivity of nationalism—postmodern nationalism—where the emphasis moved to an aesthetic of choice. While there may still be no postmodern nations as such, during this period, particularly in the West, postmodern subjectivities of ephemeral intensity came to overlay the continuing modern foundations of the contemporary nation.

The first point to draw from this series of moments is that the history of nation formation is one of continuity and discontinuity. Traditional national sentiment is qualitatively different in many fundamental respects from the modern nationalism of horizontal and generalized compatriotism. Nevertheless, despite this difference, it is a subjectivity that demands a broader explanation of nation formation than the modernist theorists currently allow. In the sense in which I am using these terms, modern nationalism is associated with a self-conscious politicization of the relation between community and polity, usually with the desire for a state for one’s nation, whereas traditional national sentiment has no such associations. On the other hand, modern and traditional national subjectivities are related in that they both entail a process through which persons are, at one level, lifted out of the integral connections of face-to-face community, and abstracted from messianic time and sacred place. It is this process that enables certain persons still living within the ontological formation of traditionalism—namely intellectuals, clerics, poets—to name territorialized places or genealogically connected peoples as distinct and demarcated entities, bounded in territorial space and historical time, and separable from other such similar entities.

The second point is that this chapter parts company with any implicit argument in the mainstream literature that Europe provided the blueprint for modern nation formation, except in regard to being contextually crucial as the dominant globalizer of practices and ideas, including philosophical naming of the idea of nationalism. One step in this revision is to qualify fundamentally any implication that Europe is the birthplace of the nation-state. Certainly, as has already been acknowledged, Europe was central to the emergent system of capitalist production and exchange relations that through imperial expansion affected fundamental changes in the soci eties of the ‘periphery.’ These changes became the context for the first wave of emergent nation-states in the nineteenth century. However, even in relation to the last wave of Third World nation-states we have to be careful, for example, of too-quickly agreeing with Benedict Anderson’s emphasis on the export of the idea of nationalism when he draws attention to the surface phenomenon that ‘twentieth century nationalisms have a profoundly modular character’ (1991: 135). In one sense it is true. However, questions remain. Why, and in what way, was the blueprint of the civil nation-state taken up? (I will come back to this question shortly.) Moreover, we need to ask whether in fact it is the case that the Western European nation-states simply came first as a model to copy.

Examples that qualify the focus on Europe as the proximate source of the nation-state are not hard to find. As I wrote in Nation Formation (1996), profoundly influenced by Benedict Anderson’s thesis on the nations of the New World, the Thirteen States in North America had instituted the internal pacification of its indigenous inhabitants; they had fought a war of independence against a European power which brandished absolutist doctrines of the indivisibility of sovereignty (1775–81); they had worked out a system for parcelling, commodifying and administering the ‘empty’ frontier territories; and, in the name of the People of the United States, had ratified a unifying constitution (1789)—all before the August Days of 1789 saw Louis XVI’s ancien régime brought to an end by his erstwhile royal subjects. If we travel south to the colonies of Spanish America, Anderson asks: ‘why was it precisely creole communities that developed so early conceptions of their nationness—well before most of Europe ?’ (1991: 50) The apparent anachronism cannot be explained through a straightforward diffusionist or modular argument. Rather the gradual and uneven consolidation in Europe, and elsewhere, of developments that framed the transition from the imperial or monarchical state to the abstract state, also contributed to a changed and globalizing world-time, a changed constitutive setting in which across the globe, and bearing back upon Europe, states and peoples began to assert their political and cultural identity. In short, nation-states were formed in the over-determined and uneven context of modern globalization. This was a basis of the formation of nation-states, both in Europe and elsewhere. Even the nation-states that were formed during the second wave of decolonization after the late 1950s could not simply copy the Western blueprint. The decolonizing communities may have been pressed to take up what was by then a global model, but the more important issue was a globalizing pressure of social change that was integrated and accommodated from within. In other words, as the nature of the dominant layer of their internal societies changed, modern nation-state status was contradictorily naturalized: at one level as an expression of a traditional continuity, and at another as an expression of modern progress and complete discontinuity.

In the Context of Imperial Globalization

A further step in distancing the present argument from the idea of a Western blueprint or ‘modular export’ approach involves examining the process of how the colonies responded to the imposition of a modernizing administration. In explaining how the development of nationalism in Spanish America could arise earlier than in the heartlands of Europe, Benedict Anderson describes a manifold process that helps us to qualify his own ‘modular’ argument. In the first place, Creole administrators, clerically trained men (women were excluded) who were often white but born in the Americas, found themselves as administrators on common ‘journeys’ that took them across time, status and place. In the language of the present chapter, through a new rationalizing mode of organization they were abstracted from relations of traditional embodied temporality and spatiality Moreover, unlike European and East Asian feudal nobles, who ascended genealogically, or absolutist ‘men of learning’ and Confucian functionaries, who climbed through talent, the Creole functionaries of the New World climbed to a certain level only to find themselves barred vertically and horizontally. They shared the embodied cultural marks of trans-Atlantic birth, bound within the geographical limit of their particular colony, but were unable to be masters of it. Finally, in the context of a changed mode of communication in intersection with capitalist trade relations, they began to imagine themselves as a horizontal community. Though my condensed description of the process may not be immediately clear, Anderson presents it with a brilliantly lucid word-picture:

Early gazettes contained—aside from news about the metropole—commercial news (when ships would arrive and depart, what prices were current for what commodities in what ports), as well as colonial political appointments, marriages of the wealthy, and so forth. In other words, what brought together on the same page, this marriage with that ship, this price with that bishop, was the structure of the colonial administration and market-system itself In this way, the newspaper of Caracas quite naturally, even apolitically, created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops, and prices belong. (1991: 62)

This description provides us with the means of qualifying Anderson’s own claim about modularity. However, I want to emphasize that it is only a qualifying and a resetting of the argument, not a rejection. I say this because the theorist whose work I intend to use to carry my argument a step further—Partha Chatterjee—is more critical of Anderson than is warranted. Chatterjee rightly describes Anderson as problematically setting up three distinct and chronologically ordered models of nationalism: (1) Creole nationalism in the Americas; (2) linguistic or so-called ‘popular’ nationalism in Europe; and (3) official nationalism in Europe. It is from the third variant that nationalism develops a modular quality that in the twentieth century can be drawn on by the Third World. Chatterjee concludes that,

instead of pursuing the varied, and often contradictory, political possibilities inherent in this process, Anderson seals up his theme with a sociological determinism … What, if we look closely, are the substantive differences between Anderson and Gellner on twentieth century nationalism? None … In the end both see in third-world nationalisms a profoundly ‘modular’ character. They are invariably shaped according to the contours outlined by given historical models: ‘objective, inescapable, imperative.’ (1986: 21)

Here Chatterjee has overstated his objection to Anderson, particularly given our earlier discussion about the importance of his work on endogenous structural processes such as the journeys of the Creole elites. Nevertheless, Chatterjee’s critique of most modernist theory, including that of Anthony Smith and Ernest Gellner, is telling. On political grounds it challenges the liberal modernist approach as treating Third World colonial resistance and postcolonial politics as predetermined by a universalizing modern West. And on factual grounds he criticizes the approach for misreading the nature and timing of nationalism as it developed in Africa and Asia. For example, during the second half of the nineteenth century a new elite-driven education system was developed across Bengal (not too dissimilar to the examples of Japan and Germany in the 1870s). Thus the beginning of modern and public-political Indian nationalism was marked symbolically by the formation in 1885 of the Indian National Congress. At this point he adds a subtle and unexpected twist. We might have expected him to say that the mainstream position forgets that the process parallels the timing in much of Europe when it argues that Indian nationalism is said to have emerged after the period of modernization and ‘social reform’ from the 1820s to 1870s. On this he would have been right, but he sets out to establish a much more difficult and important point, one that allows us to illustrate the ‘levels’ argument left hanging a couple of paragraphs ago.

Chatterjee’s argument (1993) becomes that ‘anti-colonial nationalism’ develops culturally long before its overt political manifestations. It does so by dividing social life into two domains: first, the (traditional) spiritual or the ‘inner’ domain of deep cultural identity—language, religion, family. It is at this level that we see the earliest resistance to the intervention of the colonial state, and later the reinterpretation of the nature of the traditional spiritual domain in national terms: subaltern politics becomes more than ‘numerous fragmented resistances.’ The second domain is the ‘outside’ (modern) domain of economy, state and science. For the indigenous intellectually trained groupings this involved study and imitation of the acknowledged Western ‘superiority,’ including ‘its’ notions of Rule of Law and State. Later, drawing upon the resources of Western Enlightenment universalism, they challenged colonialism and its differentiation between the outsiders as rulers and indigenous peoples as ruled, thus completing the project of the modern state. These two domains, or what I would call the two ‘ontological formations’ of traditionalism and modernism, were in a contradictory relationship, though with mutual historicities and interwoven practices. In the histories of the late nineteenth century written by Bengali scholars, the narrative style located in ‘homogeneous empty time’ was interwoven with mythic and sacred time. Concurrently, the bilingual intelligentsia embarked upon a cultural project to make Bengali a standardized language outside the influence of the state, and in doing so they wove together two versions: a formal and standardized prose influenced by European syntax, and a poetic idiom self-consciously drawing upon ‘rustic’ Indian preachers and philosophers. Thus, says Chatterjee (1996: 217):

In fact here nationalism launches its most powerful, creative and historically significant project: to fashion a ‘modern’ national culture that is nevertheless not Western. If the nation is an imagined community, then this is where it is brought into being. In this its true and essential domain, the nation is already sovereign, even when the state is in the hands of the colonial power.

Much more could be done to draw out the implications of both Anderson’s and Chatterjee’s work for the argument being developed here, however enough has been said to indicate that the emphasis of the present chapter is as much on social form as it is on social content. This takes us back to where we started—Anthony Smith’s attempt to find an intermediate position between the two problematic positions of theoretical modernism and primordialism. However, as this chapter has been concerned to argue, the trouble with this intermediation is that it has significant costs. Smith effectively gives up on the possibility of a broad theory of nation formation and emphasizes what he calls the driving force of mythomoteur with specifically ‘ethnic’ content. This takes away from the deeply materialist sense of the basis of identity formation and puts the emphasis primarily on ideas that can be dredged up from the past.


Despite obvious differences there were patterned and materially based similarities in the formation of nations, Western and Eastern, First World and Third World. This suggests that an overall theory is possible. First, nation formation involved a predominant even if uneven shift in the nature of each society based upon changes in the dominant modes of practice—production, exchange, communication, organization and inquiry—not just the taking up of an imported idea. This is not to suggest that change was homogenizing, that it involved the reconstitution of all those modes of practice, or that it permeated all the way down to the day-to-day life of all people in a way that completely remade their lives. Whether we are talking about Portugal or Indonesia, older modes of practice continue(d) long after nation-state status was declared. Secondly, it involved an abstraction from traditional social relations through such processes as cultural upheaval, geographical mobility and education. Thus the difference of emphasis between different theorists on different actors—Anderson on the importance of local ‘creoles,’ Nairn on ‘intellectuals’ and Gellner on ‘clerks’—can be understood in this common framework where the process of forming abstract communities can take many pathways on the same map. Thirdly, nation formation is rarely based upon an homogeneous or genealogically connected population, even if mythologies of common ethnic connection are forged. This has the effect of qualifying rather than rejecting Smith’s argument. Still, it is important to remember that whether we are talking about France, the United States, East Timor or West Papua, nations were, and are, being quilted together out of patchworks of culturally distinct peoples. Fourthly, nation formation is rarely consensual, even if it does over a couple of generations become deeply constitutive of social identity. In this, Rwanda and India, Britain and the United States, have much in common, even if the violence had different expressions, different adversaries and different ideological rationales.

The modern nation came into being across the globe through the overdetermination of changing dominant modes of practice, integration and being—modes associated with the upheavals of modernity in the context of extended global confrontations, imperial and otherwise. However, though the modern nation was made possible by these patterned changes, it had to be made by people acting politically. We can say that as a consequence of this process of change, not as a cause, the formation of nation-states came in late modernity to be experienced as natural. That is, to the extent that they thought about it, most of the population came to assume that nation-statehood, whether consensual or striven by blood sacrifice, is the normal form of community-polity. From the bottom, some individuals and peoples may have thought they wanted to live under a different nation-state, but usually this meant wanting a state for their own self-proclaimed subordinate nation. Throughout this chapter, I have being arguing about the dialectic of continuity and discontinuity. Reading through the flickering screen of the contemporary globalizing and postmodernizing nation-states of the West with all their contradictions, it is hard to see any of the continuities-of-form here. The continuities at most appear as surface content, and even then only as points of reference: a Jewish Bible, a Christian cross, a Stone of Destiny, a slab of engraved marble, or a coloured piece of calico. However, the postmodern/late modern nation has all the ontological vulnerabilities of the prior dominant forms of polity—from traditional kingdom and absolutist state to the classical modern nation-state. Despite unprecedented technical power, it still has to legitimize itself, at one level, through basic categories of human existence such as embodiment, placement and the temporal transcendence—the transcendence of the community-polity despite the assured mortality of all who live within it. And communities will continue to do so, for good and evil, so long as we remain embodied persons living with others.