What is a nation?

This is a reply to Brandon’s latest post. I offer similar thoughts to the below post in my post about ethnicity.

I agree with Brandon that in discussing things we should not limit ourselves to thinking in terms of states. We must consider, as Brandon puts it, both supra and sub states. We must also recall that states are much more fluid than we usually consider them.

When discussing international relations I attempt to get my conversation partners to agree that:

(1) National borders are not stable and,

(2) National identity is more fiction than reality.

The first is easily confirmed by looking at historical maps. Here is a map of the Levant/Greater Middle East in 14th century BC, in 830 BC, in 634 AD, in 1135 AD, and in 1900 AD.

Egypt and Persia are the only two entities that are present in some form or another throughout this time span, and even then their respective borders have fluctuated with only a few core regions being stable. I have yet to find someone who disagrees with the first point.

The second point is harder to get people to concede. We often think of ourselves as a given national identity and find it difficult to imagine that our nation did not exist since the beginning, or at least as far back as imaginable. Most nations have a foundation epic that makes little sense when seriously scrutinized.

Take for example American national identity. Three hundred million plus souls imagine themselves as ‘American’, but what exactly does that mean?

American identity cannot be equated with a specific phenotype; i.e. Americans are not all blue eyed blond people of English descent. In colonial days blacks outnumbered whites in several regions. Today whites in the Mid-Atlantic states are bronze skinned due to the dominance of Mediterranean descent there. The southwest is filled with “Hispanics” who overwhelming self-identify as white but are not considered really white, hence the curious demographic term “non-Hispanic white.” Even in the cradle of the American revolution, Massachusetts, the largest ancestry group is the Irish not English. The only state that is predominantly of English descent is Utah.

Among whites there is constant tension over who was really white and who is a “white negro.” Germans, who are today the largest ancestry group in the US, were the first ‘white’ subgroup to have to fight to prove that they were really white. The Irish, Italians, and others of European descent all had to fight for inclusion into the ‘white’ group. Today Hispanics and Asians are both vying for inclusion.

The revolutionary war serves as the US’ de facto national epic and the leaders of the rebellion are treated (and on occasion sculpted) as demi-gods. Yet the popular image of the revolution is more fiction than reality. Americans paid very little in tax relative to residents of the British isles. George Washington was a horrible military strategist. The founding fathers were not fighting to ensure liberty for the common man – they were fighting to shift control of government from elites in London to elites in Philadelphia. To be sure there were a few true revolutionaries, such as Thomas Paine, who were involved in the hope of genuinely reforming government. For every Paine, though, there were a dozen Hamiltons who wanted to preserve the British Empire, just without the British.

‘American’, in so far as it is an ethnic label, is non-stationary and continually evolving. I would not be amazed if the American label went extinct and was replaced with other labels in the future. Perhaps the Pacific Northwest will become inhabited by Cascadians in the future?

None of this is unique to the American moniker. It is easy to pick on the United States since it is a young nation, but most nations are just as fluid and nonsensical.

What does it mean to be British? Turkish? Austrian? Spanish?

Were the inhabitants of the British isles prior to the Norman invasion British?

The Byzantine Empire was only recently destroyed and many of its inhabitants inter married with Turkic migrants. The Ottomans gave themselves the title of Roman Emperor, “Kayser-i Rum.” A friend of mine jokingly calls Turks “Anatolian Greeks.”

‘Austrian’ as a national identity is arguably younger than the American moniker. Prior to the disestablishment of the Hapsburg Empire in WW1 there was no independent Austrian geopolitical entity. Austria was a constituent member of the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburg crown lands, the Austrian Empire, and Austria-Hungary before finally becoming simply Austria following WW1. Austrians are as culturally distinct from other Germans as Bavarians or Swabians are. Why then are Austrians a national group, but the latter two aren’t?

The Iberian peninsula has been under Muslim control (700s~1600s) longer than it has been under a united Spain. Spaniards continue to have significant traces of Arab/Berber genetic material. Despite the actions of Franco, Spanish (or “Castilian”) is not the sole language used in the country. Several million in the country’s northeast wish to cease being Spanish altogether in order to form an independent Catalan.

What is a nation? I argue that it is a group label that is invented and sustained in so far as it serves to further the goals of elites. Within an individual’s lifetime they appear unchanging, but from a historical perspective they are fluid and are frequently created, killed, or reborn as needed. When conversing about geopolitics we cannot ignore national identity, but we must keep in mind that in the long run nationality can be, and is, molded to suit political goals.


12 thoughts on “What is a nation?

  1. No. The elites are the ones wanting to eliminate nations so they don’t favor elites. Nations allow ethnic groups to gain from collective actions as an extension of the tribe. Why is this only called a problem when Whites do it? Very telling.

    • I don’t think nations are bad. To the contrary I think they are very useful to lower the cost of collective action. My point is merely that they are, for the most part, based on fiction than reality.

      I do agree with you that it is saddening that non-whites are allowed to tap into nationalism as a form of political action, but whites can’t. We live in a weird world where Hispanics, Asians, and Blacks can all have nationalist groups and that is socially acceptable, but white nationalist groups must be ‘racist’.

  2. They may be imagined (see Benedict Anderson’s masterful Imagined Communities), but they are still real and real in their consequences. Smith, Hume, Hayek never thought there would be a world without nations…

    • I agree with you. Nations are real in so far that they have real consequences. I argue only that they are not permanent entities, their reported background is often more fiction than reality, and can be created/destroyed in the long run. I second thought I might give elites too much credit – there is likely some role for the intelligentsia and public at large in the creation of a nation.

      I am doubtful Hayek gave nations much serious thought. At least to my knowledge he didn’t leave us any written thoughts about international relations or nation building. Mises has a few essays from his early career where he advocates for an “East European Democratic Union” to fill in the void left after the Austrian Empire’s collapse, but I can’t think of an equivalent for Hayek.

  3. This is a yet another excellent post, Michelangelo. I’d like to just make two points that a) recognize your fundamentals, and b) attempt to build off of them. One is a small point about ‘elites’ and the other is a relatively big point about ‘language’.

    On elites, I don’t think that they are as smart as we think they are. (See the anthropologist James C. Scott’s work Seeing Like A State for more on this.) Elites are basically winging it, just like the rest of us. Do they try try to exploit nationalism? Absolutely, but again, so does everybody else.

    Language is much more complicated, and it’s been mostly absent from our dialogues so far. On the one hand, language doesn’t seem to matter much, especially when we think superficially about the New World republics and the settler states of Asia (Australia, NZ, Singapore); the EU, for all its faults, is also used (rightly, I think) to bolster the idea that language is overrated. On the other hand, language matters a whole lot.

    There is a lot of scholarship on language out there (check out UCLA’s linguistic anthropology department for some of the more cutting edge work being done on language and culture; here, for example, is an introductory pdf from Elinor Ochs and Bambi Schieffelin; UCLA’s school of linguistic thought arose to challenge and – I would argue – topple the Chomsky/MIT school of linguistic thought over the course of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s), but I’m going to go with Ludwig von Mises on this one.

    Mises, in Nation, State, and Economy (pdf; an underrated book, by the way, and be sure to read Leland Yeager’s introduction for a decent overview of 19th century Europe), argues that nations can only be political, and that therefore nationality lies in language. (This is very close to the widely-held view among linguists now, with ‘nationality’ being replaced by ‘identity’, thanks to the pioneering work done by the UCLA school contra the MIT/Chomsky camp. Also, notice the delicious irony here: Mises’ notion of ‘nationality’ is much more collectivist than today’s left-wing scholarly notions of individualistic identity. Chalk up another subtle cultural victory for individualism!) If this is a tough leap in logic to make, think about traffic signs. Here is a pinterest collage of 22 stop signs from around the world. For the most part, they look the same but have their own language for “stop” in place (I suspect that the few places where stop signs don’t conform to the informal, international standard is political as well, but I digress). Now imagine that the US government replaced all the English-language stop signs in the US with Spanish-language stop signs. People would eventually get used to what is essentially an insignificant change, but the uproar would be so great that the US government would never consider such a thing. Language matters. Language, even everyday language, is political.

    (Mises uses the example of the Czechs and Slovaks to drive this point home, see pp 41-43. More relevant, perhaps, to your initial point about Austrian nationalism is Mises’ example of the British and the Americans. For the most part, Austrians consider themselves as part of the German nation and not as separate from the German world. Instead, the Austrians and, say, German-speaking Swiss consider themselves politically separate from the German world but not culturally or linguistically. They speak German, they eat German food, they read German literature, they watch German TV, they love German-style soccer, and they carry an Austrian or Swiss passport. In this sense, Americans are English in nationality. I know there are plenty of immigrant cultures in the US, including my own Scandinavian one, but they become more and more Anglicized with every passing day.)

    Borders, languages, and nations are fluid, but they are also political. That is, they are concerned with power. If you ask people to join a political union where their language – their fundamental understanding of their personal universe – is going to be subsumed for a provable, empirically-robust greater good, you are asking them to give up some power, presumably – in our scenario at least – in exchange for liberty. When we make arguments for a more fluid-yet-cohesive world, we have to be careful not to sweep things like language under the rug. We’ve got to keep a sharp eye on What Matters A Lot to people. We have to anticipate their fears before we can allay them.

    So, again building off of your (quite excellent) points Michelangelo, I offer the following argument. In order to advance the notion of the free and open society on a worldwide scale – something that should be in the hearts and minds of all individualists – we have to look at language as something that supercedes borders and nationality. We have to look at sub & supra states with language in mind. The republican United States can bear the linguistic costs of a more socially (politically, economically, and culturally) integrated world because of its Madisonian constitution (the US came together as 13 independent polities for interests of state, specifically mutual defense against foreign powers; see a little known book by the political scientist David Hendrickson for more on this) and commercially-oriented culture, whereas a republic like Argentina came together under the auspices of rent-seeking. This Madisonian pragmatism in politics needs to be driving libertarian arguments about foreign policy if the free and open society is to expand beyond its already paltry borders.

  4. Michelangelo: you willl be surprised about old Friedrich’s versatility, see my 2009 book Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises and Hayek (Palgrave)

  5. […] The centralized administrative state is a much worse option than a territorial federal republic in Belz’ view (and my own), mostly because in the federal republic sovereignty resides in both “the people” and in the various “states” that have federated to form a republic (Belz suggests this made the United states “a national whole,” but I don’t think that’s true, largely because of Belz’ own description of what Barreyre calls “sectional” politics at the time, but I digress; see Michelangelo for conceptions about “the nation”). […]

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