Nations as Zones of Conflict


John Hutchinson

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    This book has been some years in the making. I would like to thank my editor, Chris Rojek, for his patience during this time.

    Many people have contributed to the writing of this book. One spur came from Wayne Hudson with whom I taught a course in world history at Griffith University, which gave me a new appreciation of the long range and recurring processes in history. In developing my arguments, I have been much indebted to the pioneering scholarship of John Armstrong and Anthony Smith on the ethnic origins of nations, and to Michael Mann's insights into the multiple sources of social power. I am grateful to Steven Grosby for comments on an article I published in Ethnic and Racial Studies in which I introduced some of my ideas, and to Kosaku Yoshino, whose ‘consumption approach’ to nationalism has influenced Chapter 4 of this book. I have benefited from responses to early versions of these ideas presented in the form of conference or seminar papers in Australia, Britain, Italy and Turkey. This study was composed since my arrival at the London School of Economics, and I must pay tribute to the stimulus provided by ASEN, the Association for the Study of Ethnicity and Nationalism, run by talented and enterprising postgraduate students who have made the LSE such a powerhouse for the study of nationalism.

    Finally, I would like to thank my parents for the support they have always offered so unstintingly, and to my brother Geoffrey for managing to persuade me of his interest in the progress of this book.

    Earlier versions of some chapters have appeared elsewhere.

    Chapter 2 is an extended version of ‘Myth against myth: the nation as ethnic overlay’, Nations and Nationalism, 2004, 10 (1–2), 109–24, and I would like to thank Nations and Nationalism for permitting me to reproduce material from this article.

    Some of the arguments in Chapter 5 were presented first in my ‘Nationalism, Globalism and the Conflict of Civilisations‘, in U. Ozkirimli (ed.) Nationalism and its Futures, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 71–92.

    Chapter 5 also contains material published as ‘Enduring nations and the illusions of European integration’, in W. Spohn and A. Triandafyllidou (eds) Europeanisation, National Identities and Migration: Changes in Boundary Constructions between Western and Eastern Europe, London: Routledge, 2002, pp. 36–51. I am grateful for permission to reproduce this material.

    JohnHutchinsonLondon January 2004


    To Geoffrey

  • Conclusion

    The central problem addressed by this book is to explain how nations can appear to their members as enduring groups when the identities they maintain are continuously evolving and are subject to regular contestation, and to expansion and contraction. In my account nations are much more potent and also more limited than modernists would like to believe. They are potent because they are able to mobilise powerful sentiments and formulate a variety of routes by which to navigate through the perilous seas of the modern world. They are not mere outgrowths of deeper forces. But, at the same time, even in their guise as national states they never have been autonomous or unitary, but have always been subject to challenges and have always had to pool sovereignty with other actors. Their resilience in the past suggests that much of the discussion about the crisis of the contemporary national state is hyperbole.

    I have suggested that what gives nations their enduring character in the modern world is a sense of historical mission, exemplified over centuries, that enables nationalists to plan and act over a long period even when faced with great difficulties over the short- to medium-term. This long time sense is not simply an artefact of romantic historiography, that somehow or other has become lodged in our consciousness, in spite of the best efforts of scientific historians to deconstruct it. Romanticism builds on memories that are carried into the modern period by religious organisations, legal systems, vernacular literatures, constitutions and states, urban architecture and monuments. These institutions have purposes and identities that were not necessarily ethnic, at least in their origins, but, as such memories have become part of the living culture of communities, they have come to assume an ethnic character. Because populations have been subject to multiple shocks, those ethnic communities that do survive have layered pasts that offer several foci of identification and resistance against adversity.

    The sense of being part of a community that has survived and that has achieved moments of greatness as well as of decline explains much of the capacity of helpless peoples in the premodern and modern period to survive conquest and absorption into imperial systems. What sustains them is a knowledge that power passes, and this enables elites to work for the day, perhaps not in their lifetimes, that their great oppressor will fall and the ethnic group or nation will be redeemed. Where an ethnicity is infused with a sense of religious election, such visions may last virtually indefinitely (short of mass conversion). Such visions have extra force in the modern world because the uneven impact, intensity and rapidity of technological change of all kinds destabilises established states, as the collapse of the great empires in the twentieth century demonstrates. I therefore depart from Roger Brubaker's concept of nations as contingent and fluctuating events (Brubaker, 1996: 19). His ‘new institutionalism’ is overly focused on the state, neglecting the many other and often more powerful institutions through which identities become socially embedded.

    If nationalists are able to build on such memories, they are often confronted by the ‘guardians’ of tradition. The conflicts within nations between the dynamic and modernising projects of nationalism and the peculiar stickiness of ethnic traditionalism have been underplayed, certainly by those who are committed to the idea of the nation as an invention. I argued that the rise of national revivalism or cultural nationalism produced an intellectual revolution, repudiating the hegemonic claims of European Christendom as the primary world civilisation in favour of a multicentred world civilisation whose creative origins were non-Western. This, in part, explains the attraction of nationalism to intellectuals outside Europe who felt their cultures and their own status to be increasingly marginalised by European imperialism. But these intellectuals, like their counterparts in Europe, were a small minority, often of a different religion from the majority. This meant that the struggle to culturally transform their societies was a difficult and protracted process, only made possible because many conservatives came to realise that they faced a choice between saving either their peoples or their traditions in the new science-based world.

    Even so, one of the essential tools of the revivalists was having a layered ethnic past with alternative traditions that could be used to legitimise as ‘authentic’ an ideology of innovation through selective borrowing from more advanced cultures. Rather than inventors, I have called such cultural nationalists ‘moral innovators’ engaged in an internal transformation of tradition, a process I showed was unpredictable and operated in part through trial and error, because the search for the nation revealed unsuspected pasts, cultural practices, ‘hidden’ sacred sites and communities that then became reference points round which nationalists mobilised. I suggested that a second means by which revivalists established the nation over the older ethnies was through a process of mythic overlaying, inspired by a new cult of sacrifice devoted to the emerging ‘god’ of the people. In many contexts, this has only had a partial success and we see deep tensions between secular nationalism and ethnoreligious and religious cultures in countries such as Ireland, Israel and the Arab Middle East.

    Such divisions, we observed in the chapter on cultural wars, render nation-formation an unfinished and evolving process. All nations, to a lesser or greater extent, contain plural ethnic repertoires that in the modern period become systemised into competing cultural and political projects. These are not reducible to religious-secular differences. They reflect the different heritages possessed by populations, created by formative experiences of triumph or disaster. The activation of such heritages as rival (and sometimes alternating) options demonstrates the intimate involvement of nationalists in the construction of modernity. This undermines the modernist overemphasis on the homogeneity of nations in favour of a picture that shows nationalisms acting on modernisation to produce a differentiation of the human world. Does this not support the claims of postmodernists who view national formation as a construct, though one of many possible ‘plays of difference’, with the implication that it can be deconstructed? I suggest that this is not the case, for these alternatives have not been plucked from the air of history but have been institutionalised as a result of powerful experiences and they remain live because they address continuing problems. It is the sense of historical constraint that makes these contestations so intense, as the protagonists on each side seek to throw off a particular incubus that lies so heavily upon the present.

    Much of the historical discussion of nation-formation is predicated on a heroic myth of how political elites, marching in step with the extension in scale of political and economic communications, absorb ever-broader groups into a unitary and sovereign national society, by programmes of conscription, universal education and the extension of democratic citizenship. I have suggested that this movement can be dubbed ‘statism’ rather than nationalism, and that national formation is a much more complex and episodic process. The evidence indicates that national identities often emerged before the modern state, and that states have never been bounded power containers capable of inventing nations. Nationalists have used new political rights to mobilise against the state in the name of the national community, especially at times when states have lacked the capacity or willingness to defend the nation against external forces.

    In short, I identify two forms of nationalism, a ‘hot’ or ‘sacred’ nationalism that is society-forming in mobilising boundaries, and a ‘banal’, or ‘profane’ nationalism (or national identity) that is used eclectically and unselfconsciously by individuals and institutions to give meaning and a sense of distinctiveness to their diurnal existence. The latter is not a product of the former; the two exist in tension and interaction with each other. The sense of gap is not so much between a creative high culture versus a commodified popular culture (though this gap can be a stimulus of cultural innovation). Rather the contrast is between those who believe the nation must be recreated so that it regulates in an explicit manner other loyalties and those who take a national identity for granted in their social existence. Because we cannot identify the existence of a nation then with mass mobilisation, since a sense of national identity may exist among large sections of a given population in a more piecemeal fashion (identifying with national stereotypes, singing patriotic songs, rioting against foreign workers, holidaying in national sites), it raises the possibility that in certain cases a mass nation comes into being well before the late nineteenth century.

    If historically there is considerable fluctuation in the range of spheres regulated explicitly by national norms, this renders problematic many of the indicators of national incapacities employed by scholars to demonstrate the march of globalisation. I argued that ethnic formation and globalisation have operated together for millennia, and that the triumph of nationalism (as an ideology that legitimises progress through cultural exchange) is intrinsically linked to the rise of an increasingly interactive world. Indeed, we can see something of a cycle operating whereby global processes lead to ethnic crystallisations and ethnic agents sponsor long range interactions that result in new ethnic and national formations. The implications are that though nations may adopt new regulatory strategies in the contemporary world, more intensive forms of global interchange will lead to an intensification and proliferation of nationalisms and nations in the future.

    A still more important conclusion is that the concern with globalisation as an emerging threat to the future of the national state is misplaced. The focus should be on the global past. The viability of national projects in the contemporary world depends on whether they can draw on the ethnic crystallisations of earlier globalisations. Without such heritages, establishing a cohesive community that can act as the base of modernisation will be difficult and long drawn out.

    Yet there is one caveat, and it is a big one. What about the examples of soi-disant multicultural nations such as the USA, Australia and Canada? Are they not successful modern societies? I have argued elsewhere (Hutchinson, 1994: ch. 6), that these are special cases that have developed a futureoriented national myth, as ‘young’ countries destined to exemplify how a diverse humanity can live together. But this is a national myth, based on originating ethnic cores (Anglo-Celtic and, in Canada's case, French), and employed to justify their novelty in a world of nations where status is governed by an ancestral antiquity. In the USA a sense of religious destiny derived from the Puritan heritage has helped underpin this ‘New World’ identity. Moreover, in recent decades they have been torn by status and political competition between the originating settler ethnies, the waves of newer immigrants who seek to de-anglicise the dominant national culture, and the indigenous peoples.

    But what of those cases where, as in the Middle East, older ethnic identities were largely effaced at the popular level by transethnic religious loyalties, which remain strong competitors to nations? Or, alternatively, what of ethnic formations in parts of Africa that threaten to fragment existing states and that are too small to form the basis of an effective alternative polity? Does this not suggest that in many parts of the non-European world nations will be thinly-based elite formations, or will be unviable? To a degree. The problem is to find an alternative to the ethnically-based nation: there appears to be no other plausible model. The imperial principle no longer works, and the federal idea is stable only within states possessing a demographically dominant ethnic core.

    This is not to say that populations without premodern ethnic traditions cannot become nations. Ethnogenesis continues in the contemporary period. It is also true that many states or populations claiming to be nations do not fit the above definition, but I suggest that part of the disruption in world politics is an attempt to create such nations. Rather than, as some commentators suggest, reaching the end of the era of nations, I would argue that many areas of Eurasia, Africa and Latin America are still in the early period of nation-formation, and that this will be accompanied by social and political upheavals. But this is a topic for another book.


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