Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Ramblings on the Nation-State Idea

Joseph Moore has a couple of interesting posts up over at Yard Sale of the Mind dealing with the nation state as a source of identity rather than the local region, city, etc. (First post. Second post.) They're worth reading and I'd recommend them.

I've always found a certain appeal to localist ideas, but it's most certainly not how I lived my life. I grew up in Southern California, lived for seven years in Texas, and now live in a small town outside Columbus, OH, a little over a hundred miles drive from MrsDarwin's family in Cincinnati. There are ways in which my west coast upbringing makes me not fit elsewhere as well, but at this point California feels a bit alien to me as well. So at this point I'm arguably more American than any particular regional designation within it. I really like the small town we live in, but I have to admit I find it hard to get very excited about city and county elections.

I think Joseph Moore is onto something that it is to an extent this breakdown in local ties (both due to heavy participation in the national entertainment culture and due to frequent moves) which results in people identifying more and more with the nation rather than their city or region. Though I'd point out this isn't strictly a city driven phenomenon. One of the big national movements which moved us along the path to a larger and more intrusive national government (and more identification with national politics) was the agrarian progressive movement of the last of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th. William Jennings Byan led a national movement which sought progressive national government policies which would help farmers against monied interests, at a point when farmers tended to see railroad fees and commodity prices as major sources of injustice. (From a Catholic standpoint, this tradition of supporting government running of the economy to protect small agricultural concerns is a something one sees in the social encyclicals.)

Another interesting point is the difference between the US and a lot of the "old world" countries in terms of what the nation is founded on. Joseph Moore says:
In a book that I can’t lay my hands on at the moment (buried in The Pile) on the Paris peace conference, they mention the problem with Wilson’s plebiscite idea: the people in the villages in the disputed areas didn’t think of themselves primarily as members of a nation, but as members of their villages. That they spoke German or Polish or Czech might incline them to identify with other speakers of those languages, but didn’t necessarily mean they thought of themselves first and foremost as members of a nation comprised of speakers of that language. I wonder how the votes (assuming they took place – did they?) would have gone if it had been presented thus:
1. You can vote to be identified primarily with speakers of your language. If speakers of your language win the vote, you get to keep your village, and all speakers of other languages will be driven out, presumably to live among speakers of their languages. If you lose, YOU get driven out and lose everything. You are voting that the interests of villages are second to the interests of nation-states.

2. You can vote to leave things as they are, to hell with some progressive’s desire to divvy up everybody into conveniently managed nation-states. If so, everybody has to be cool with everybody else in the neighborhood, but everybody gets to stay and keep their stuff. You are voting that the interests of nation-states are secondary to the interests of villages.
For various historical reasons, the nation states that formed in Europe were what is most properly referred to as "nation states", states built to provide a country dedicated to a specific "nation" in terms of race, language and culture. This basis in turn created tensions right from the beginning. For instance, Poland as it existed after 1920 had significant minorities of Germans, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews, as well as the ethnic Poles after whom the country was named. These ethnic groups proceeded to be fault lines both in domestic politics and as the country was invaded, occupied, moved, and ethnically cleansed over the following 30 years.

While the US certainly has a degree of shared language and culture, it does not have this ethno-national component to nearly the same degree. But it's also not exactly a classicl supranational empire on the model of the Austro-Hungarian empire.


August said...

I've read Erasmus, and he counsels the king to eschew claims on foreign land, and stop marrying off family members (or themselves) to foreigners.
I see the point of it- a several generations later and even the poorest child sees himself as related to the king, ambitious foreigners seek to marry into the middle class of the realm- no doubt in the hopes of seeing their children marrying upward- and the neighboring countries are peaceable due to their presence.

The above would create a nation. A people. I can only imagine this working on a city level- well a city and the hinterlands necessary for food production. America would look a lot different than it does now.

Joseph Moore said...

Thanks for reading that nation state series - I'm a little sheepish, because, more than even most of what I write, I am working out partially formed thoughts in public. It would be nice, I suppose, to know exactly what one thinks and exactly how to express it in words, but this is often rare.

Now, I'm musing on what it means for a village to consist of 10% people living in it, 90% people (farmers) living around it. Everybody would get together for Mass and market days, I suppose. What kind of society does that create? What are the good parts we suffer from missing?

Further, in what sense is the Church a homeland? How does belief overlap and sometimes evidently replace loyalty and love of place?

Art Deco said...

You do realize, your presentation of option 1 is tendentious and option 2 did not in 1919 exist?

There can be instances of ethnic cleansing and voluntary patriation, but people can and do persist in places of habitual residency when sovereign boundaries change.

The second option you are offering would be maintaining existing dynastic states in 1919. These were globular and unwieldy entities already partially undone by intramural fissures. The Hapsburg dominions fell apart rather rapidly in 1918 and 1919 and the Tsarist domains were taken over by Communists. So what you end up advocating is maintaining modally Polish villages in Prussia (in circumstances where you have to put the boundary somewhere).

Joseph Moore said...


What I'm trying to address, based on my admittedly light information about the period, is that our modern assumptions about national identity are not some sort of natural law, but are rather a comparatively recent development.

Re: hypothetical options. As I mention, I have no idea if or to what extent these reflect reality, it's a thought experiment. Option 1 - Tendentious in what sense? Does not option 1 reflect what in fact happened much of the time? I recall Orwell using "rationalization of national boundaries" as a sterling example of Newspeak, where what was really happening was peasants being run off their land and losing everything because they spoke the wrong language according to some politician a thousand miles away. And the second hypothetical is just intended to be its mirror image.

Really, the question I'm asking (one aspect, at any rate) is: What does it mean to say that a Polish village is in Prussia? A village is a real thing; Prussia is an abstraction, except insofar as it could march its armies in and chase you off. If I say I'm a villager, that has some real meaning and consequences. Even Prussians often didn't really know what they meant when they said they were Prussians.

Art Deco said...

Option 1 - Tendentious in what sense? Does not option 1 reflect what in fact happened much of the time?

You offered a dichotomy of options. That is manipulative. During the inter-war period, you had German minorities in Poland, German minorities in Bohemia and Moravia, German minorities in Roumania ('Saxons'), Hungarian minorities in Roumania ('Magyars' and 'Szeklers'), Russian and Ukrainian minorities in Roumania, Gagauz minorities in Roumania, Hungarian minorities in Vojvodina, Turkish minorities in Bulgaria, &c. A number of these populations are still there. These were not odd and eccentric populations. They numbered in the six and seven digits. Someone was not being driven out.

The two major examples of ethnic cleansing were the Ionian Greeks and the German populations of Silesia, Pomerania, and the Sudetenland. The latter occurred after the 2d World War and after Germany had treated much of eastern Europe quite frightfully.

The Sudeten example is not one you should adduce if you want to make an argument for conventional territorial boundaries over ethnic boundaries; Sudeten populations proved to be...a challenge for Czech politicians. As for Ionia, the Turkish political class did not require boundaries in flux to induce them to move 'round large populations. See the experience of the Armenians after 1914.

Prussia was not an abstraction, but a real place with real boundaries. It was just on a scale larger than a village. I cannot figure how you got the notion in your head that members of national populations 'don't know what they mean' when they identify themselves. That's condescending tommyrot.

Whatever George Orwell said, you have to stick the boundary somewhere. That's not some early 20th century prog-artifact. Political power is exercised in territorial units.