Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Monday, February 03, 2003
One of the more rewarding reads of the last year for me was Liah Greenfeld's Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. (For me, it was rewarding last year; for you, it might have been rewarding ten years ago, because it was published in 1992. So I'm behind. Sue me.) It's basically a study of nationalism in five countries: England, France, Russia, Germany and the United States. To summarize her argument:

* A nation originally meant something like an intellectual faction at Continental universities.
* From this, the word evolved to correspond to the elite of a political community.
* In England, in the 16th century, the populace began to develop a sense of itself as a community of self-governing individuals, and as-such as sovereign. This development was a consequence of high social mobility in early-modern England, and resulted in a new sense of the word nation as such a self-governing community.
* The break from Rome under Henry VIII and the spread of dissenting Protestantism allied the monarchy and religion to the proposition that England was an Empire of its own, independent of other authority, and as-such a nation.
* By the mid 17th century the transformation of England into a nation was complete. Around the same time, France began to change. In medieval days, France understood itself as a something akin to the apotheosis of Christian civilization, and had a political ideology that identified the king and Christ. Under Louis XIII and XIV, Royal absolutism articulated an ideology whereby this civilization was not only devoted to but entirely identified with the king.
* Royal absolutism concentrated power in Paris and in the royal court. It consequently radically reduced the real power of the nobility, producing acute status anxiety.
* The end result of this transformation in the nobility was for them to seek an alternative source of status. This was found by separating the state from the king, and transferring identification from king to state.
* In the French understanding, the nation became the embodiment of the unique French civilization, and the state became the embodiment of the nation. The nation was not a self-governing community but the state that ruled over a community, and devotion to that state became the source of status.
* This transformation of France into a new kind of nation was informed by admiration of and ressentiment towards England, a nation at once recognized as the most advanced and successful in Europe and derided as an inferior civilization to the French.
* Following French developments from a distance, Russia's Tsar Peter the Great began a program to drag Russian forcibly into the modern world. His nobility was already abject in its servility. The dynamic of the development of Russian nationalism was therefore dominated by the disconnect of an absolute ruler ordering his people to be free.
* Because of this, Russian anxiety was dominated less by the sense of a class newly humiliated by the rising state (as in France) than by a sense of Russians as a people humiliated by their failure to be modern.
* This sense of humiliation resulted in two intellectual streams, both violent and mutually opposed: the westernizers, who wanted to burn Russia down and rebuild it on a rational, western model; and the slavophiles, who reinterpreted Russia's failures as spiritual successes, and opposed everything western.
* Russian nationalism, unlike French, developed an ethnic emphasis that predated any political expression.
* Germans came late to the concept of nationalism, but developed it very quickly. Germany did not develop nationalism until the Napoleonic invasions, and the reason was that the German states - particularly Prussia, the most modern - did not dispossess its aristocratic class, as did the French, but turned to it to staff the emerging bureaucracy. The leading class, therefore, did not suffer the status anxiety that caused an intellectual revolution in France.
* Rather, Greenfeld identified the sources of German nationalism in Pietism, an important stream in German Protestantism. Greenfeld contrasts Lutheran Pietism with the Calvinism that was so important to the development of English nationalism. This is an area where she's kind of playing to my prejudices, and where I am insufficiently knowledgeable, so I may be more receptive than the evidence warrants. Nonetheless: her contention is that Pietism, as an inward-looking spiritual movement that rejected the world, did not prepare the ground in Germany for individualism and popular sovereignty in the way that outward-looking Calvinism did in England.
* The key class for German nationalism was not a dispossessed nobility, as in France, or a rising middle-class, as in England, but an intellectual class drawn from the Pietist-influenced country, educated at the new universities, but without an economic foothold in German states still dominated by the aristocracy. These suffering young Werthers were drawn to and developed the ideology of Romanticism which was a kind of secularized version of Pietism, and which stood for Spirit against Matter and Feeling against Intellect.
* This ideology became suddenly important after the Napoleonic invasion, which sparked an visceral reaction on the part of the aristocratic leaders of the German states, and especially Prussia. Looking around for an ideology to unite Germans against the French, they found one ready to hand in Romanticism.
* In the French formulation, the state was the nation, and the people, in serving the state, served the nation, and became patriots, a kind of noble. In Germany, the state was the reification of an Idea, and the people barely figured at all.
* Greenfeld concludes her discussion of Germany with an articulation about how the anti-Enlightenment ideology of Romanticism gave birth to the two distinctive German ideologies of the 19th century, Marxism and anti-Semitism, which she sees as intimately related to German nationalism.
* Her discussion of America is more cursory and less interesting. Basically, she sees American nationalism as a kind of hypertrophied English nationalism at heart, and, because of its individualist character, is always at risk of flying off into its constitutive parts. Only during and after the Civil War was a truly American nationalism established, in her formulation, and its character is its relentless egalitarian reformism. I think she captures important and distinctive things about American nationalism, but I don't think she's on as sure footing as she is in discussing France and Germany.

I called the book one of my more rewarding reads because I believe that nationalism, and failed nationalism, continues to be the motor that drives world events. Much of what Greenfeld describes is failed nationalism, states and peoples adopting ideologies of resentment and hatred because of their failures, and never understanding that what nationalism is about is self-government first and foremost. Her class analysis of these resentful nationalisms seems very good to me as well. How different are the underemployed untermentschen of Lahore from those of Wetlzar? The difference is between tragedy and farce; Germans could plausibly think that, their talents being so manifest, their present humiliations would be swiftly swept away by the tides of history. They could make reality conform to their fantasies, however dark. The followers of Qutb and the Deobandi schools cannot do the same (we hope).

If the failed nationalisms of the Islamic world bear the closest resemblance to the nationalisms of Germany and Russia, the new nationalism of Europe looks most like the nationalism of France. A state is rising both in imitation of and in competition to the United States, as France rose in competition with and in imitation of England in the 17th and 18th centuries. The people of this new state have little or nothing to say about its rising, but its leaders, suffering from the status anxiety of being groomed for global leadership and achieving the destiny of setting the proper rules for the size of cheese wheels while Americans are busy reorganizing the world.

My assumption until recently was that, the EU project being inevitable, our goals should be limited to (a) keeping Britain out; (b) influencing the EU to be more democratic and accountable. If France and Germany want to form a superstate, good for them, and if others want to join, good for them, so long as it is a state with liberal values. But I now wonder whether France has overplayed its hand, and begun a reaction that will take the EU apart. At a minimum, it looks possible that Britain and the Eastern and Southern countries may be taking another hard look at whether they want to be ruled by France and Germany. At a maximum, Germany itself may take another hard look at whether it wants to antagonize America for the sake of the French gloire.

And my assumption continues to be that the Muslim world is largely hopeless where nationalism was concerned, and that this would make the region a perennial problem. My only hopes were placed on states like Iran and Egypt that have a pre-modern sense of themselves as nations (this is something Greenfeld gives too little credence to in the book; I think it definitely bears on English nationalism, and also on the French and the Russian varieties), and on Turkey, the only Muslim nation to have achieved a modern nationalism. Indonesia and Malaysia also have some potential to develop into nations. But I was very pessimistic about Iraq, Algeria, Pakistan, and of course Saudi Arabia to ever develop into something like nations. And I didn't see any alternative but chronic instability.

But it looks likely that, in a few weeks and over the next few years, my second assumption will get to be tested. We should all hope that pessimism on this score is unwarranted.