chapter  5
24 Pages

Persistence and transformation of nations

Nationalism is often thought to be a nineteenth-century phenomenon. In many quarters, nations, too, are regarded as mementoes of a past age. In the ‘post-national’ era that we are entering, with its dialectic of the local and global, only large power blocs and federations such as the European Union are held to be capable of coping with such problems as environmental pollution, drug trafficking, migration, terrorism and global epidemics, over which national states have little control and which respect no borders. Moreover, within state borders, the growing ethnic and cultural mingling of populations has rendered traditional narratives of national identity increasingly hybrid and fragmented. The national state and its elites may preach official values and traditional myths and symbols, but the various communities that make up its population go their own ways and cleave to their own cultures and religions. Above all, liberal individualism has undermined the political solidarity of the national state, and replaced it by a welfare arena for individual interests and preferences. In many respects, there is little that is new about these develop-

ments. Global pressures and trends have been prevalent for several centuries, if not earlier. Mass communications may have accelerated and diffused these trends but, as William McNeill has demonstrated, they merely resume processes and changes that were widespread before the ‘age of the nation-state’. More important, perhaps, the above picture depends on a rather mythical portrait of the national state, which as a result of migration and war was never as compact, unified or homogeneous as is sometimes assumed, or as some nationalists might have desired. As for political solidarity, at the alleged zenith of the national state around 1900, most national states

were racked by intense class, religious and regional conflicts. In fact, the pertinent question is really one of survival: how did national states manage to remain (more or less) intact, and retain their appeal for ever greater numbers of their designated populations? And on what resources, material and symbolic, could they draw for their continued existence and development?1