Tribal cast on a global stage

Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era - On Nationality
August 2, 1996

David Miller's and Anthony Smith's studies of the principle of nationality in a global era are complementary. The philosophical Miller asks, whether the nationalist who "celebrates his attachment to an historic community" or the progressive liberal who "concedes it with reluctance and shame" has the "better reason on his or her side". Or, differently stated, is there a collective right to national identity and if so what status does such a collective right have when weighed against conflicting individual rights and what obligations correspond to these rights? Whereas the sociohistorical Smith asks more pragmatic questions such as, are there alternatives to national sentiment which can satisfy peoples' needs "for cultural fulfilment, rootedness, security and fraternity"?

Smith's title pays explicit homage to Nations and Nationalism, the 1983 study by Ernest Gellner (whose sudden and premature death in 1995 has robbed the study of nationalism of one of its greatest scholars). Gellner proposed that national sentiment was necessary to the transition to modernity. Where sentiments of collective, national identity existed, men and women could be reconciled to the traumatic exchange of the routines of the sun and seasons for those of industrial waged labour and the clock; to the loss of a concrete, lived community for membership of an "imagined" national community. But what if the sense of affiliation conferred by membership of a national community is neither functional nor sustainable in a global era and instead of making progress possible, national sentiment retards it? Hence the importance of Miller's and Smith's reconsideration of the principle of nationality.

Miller makes strong claims for nationalism which, he argues, is morally legitimate because by "holding [that] the boundaries of nations and states should as far as possible coincide", nationalism creates a political community where we are better able to honour the superior moral claims of those close to us. Thus "there are strong ethical reasons for making the bounds of nationality and the bounds of the state coincide". But Miller's claim does not deal with the hard case when our obligations to those close to us conflict with the legitimate claims of those who are not close - a hard case that becomes harder with globalisation, as we live more closely with those unlike us. Between 1985 and 1992, for example, immigration to Western Europe trebled from about one million per year to more than three million per year. Miller responds to this problem, and counters Gellner's objection to nationalism - that there are too many nations for all to enjoy sovereignty - by broadening the definition of "close" and arguing that multiethnic communities may be nations.

But language severely tests Miller's argument. Full realisation of collective identity rights can be achieved for only a finite number of language groups within a single political community. Realisation of one group's identity entitlement is hostile to realisation of others'. There may be multiethnic nations but surely there are few multilinguistic nations. States with more than one official language do exist but they suggest that the number of languages which can enjoy equal status in day-to-day life is limited. Two languages perhaps but, Switzerland apart, surely not more. Thus, the practical applicability of the principle of nationality is limited and this limitation becomes more and more important as mobility of populations increases and the size of political communities grows.

What of the functional case for nationalism? Is Gellner's view of nationalism as a progressive doctrine still robust? Does the principle of nationality assist or inhibit development of contemporary political institutions competent to deal with the contemporary challenges of modernity, or do identity rights have to be traded against optimal forms of economic organisation?

Here the European Union is exemplary. Eleven languages may have official status but only two are used in day-to-day work. Although there is a formal equality between French and Finnish, and English and Swedish, practical realisation of identity rights is asymmetrical. Swedes' and Finns' opportunities to work in their mother tongue are inferior to those of French and English speakers. Both in terms of the principles of nationality and individual rights, this is offensive. But nonanglophones and nonfrancophones accept this formal, but practically empty equality because it offers countervailing practical advantages which enable them to better realise other rights and aspirations.

Miller and Smith rightly testify to the continuing sentimental power of the principle of nationality. Smith sensibly avers that "it would be folly to predict an early supersession of nationalism and an imminent transcendence of the nation", even though there are "very few nation states". Their studies are timely, for globalisation puts in question the functionality, pervasiveness and moral claims of the principle of nationality. Together, these studies testify to the continuing fascination of the principle of nationality and the obduracy of the problems it poses.

Richard Collins is lecturer in media and communications, London School of Economics.

Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era

Author - Anthony D. Smith
ISBN - 0 7456 1018 8 and 1019 6
Publisher - Polity Press
Price - £39.50 and £11.95
Pages - 211

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