I’ve expressed a little disappointment in a book I recently read, Azar Gat’s Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism. There are two primary reasons for this. Nations simply does not measure up to his previous work, War and Human Civilization. But that is perhaps not a fair assessment, since War and Human Civilization is quite possibly Gat’s magnum opus. A second issue is that the core assertion in Nations is quite modest, and not entirely at variance with conventional intuitions. Basically, Gat is refuting a modernist view, which has arguably gone from being revisionist to normative, that the concept and execution of a nation is a historically contingent construction of early modern Europe, and more precisely Revolutionary France of the 1790s. This is not an unfounded characterization of what the default position for many is, I myself have parroted the idea that the nation-state was “invented” by the French in the 1790s. This may be a vulgarization, but I’ve heard others express the same sentiment in the years since I first encountered this thesis in high school. It’s one of those “fun counter-intuitive facts” which has the beauty of simplicity, and the drawback of almost certainly being false on the face of it.
But note that I qualified the nation-state, rather than nation unadorned. When properly qualified and delineated one can perhaps defend the empirical validity of the idea that something unique emerged in early modern Europe after the Peace of Westphalia, and culminating in the Congress of Vienna. The problem is that the model being presented is usually not couched in modest terms. In hindsight the idea that nationalism is an invention of early modern Europe, and Revolutionary France, has as much plausibility as the idea that the Troubadours of the Provence invented romantic love. Yes, there are particular motifs and forms in the idea of love as it is culturally practiced in much of the world which may have its roots in this period and place, but I think it is totally misleading to assert that “love” is a cultural invention of the medieval West, as a common vulgarization goes.* Rather, love has a deep cognitive and evolutionary basis in our lineage, and manifests in a variety of ways in different social contexts. There isn’t a part of the brain which is our “love region,” rather, it is an emotion which synthesizes basic elements of human nature. It is not particularly surprising that romantic love is going to be more salient in an individualist society with consumer surplus, but that does not mean that subsistence level peasants lack the basic cognitive facilities because they had not been properly enculturated.**
Obviously there are differences between the phenomena of love and nationhood. The latter is a much more ‘high level’ phenomenon in terms of social complexity. Nationhood can not be understood except in the context of aggregates, while love is a phenomenon that can play out in dyads.*** Gat’s thesis is that given particular conditions nations are a primal unit of organization for humans. Those conditions obviously include a rate of primary economic productivity and elaborated social complexity which can support supra-tribal political units. Notice here that a state as we understand it is not necessary; the Greeks of the classical period were a nation, but they lacked a state. Nations supports Gat’s thesis with a literal flood of historical facts. Much of this is interesting. But, it presupposes that the readership can actually judge the selection and veracity of said facts. I can, because I know a lot of history. But I suspect that for readers with a weaker historical knowledge base a book of half its length would have sufficed. Second, throughout the narrative Gat refers to the modernist scholars who he is refuting extensively, but repeatedly suggests that even they don’t subscribe to the extremist caricatures of the origins and invention of nationhood (at least implicitly).
To state it in extremely plain language Nations argues that nations which are persistent have coherent cultural cores, which are more robust than states. To me this seems uncontroversial and obvious, but I do know that plenty of people find this surprising. Additionally, there is the problem that many lack the nuance to understand what this does, and doesn’t, mean. Consider for example the Byzantine Empire. As an empire one can immediately infer that it was multicultural, in that multiple nations were under its rule. It is a curiosity to note that until its last the Byzantines considered themselves Romans, and thought of their empire as the Roman Empire. Notwithstanding this peculiarity from the middle of the 7th century the core cultural identity of the Byzantine Empire was that of Greek speaking Christians. That Christianity varied in theology (e.g., see Monothelitism), but those within the Byzantine Empire and outside of it who adhered that position were consider orthodox and part of the imperial party.**** Additionally, Greek was obviously the language of the elite. In the classical Byzantine period between 650 and 1100 most of the emperors had ethnic origins which were clearly not Greek (e.g., Syrian and Armenian), and likely not orthodox (since certain ethnicities, such as Armenians, had national churches at variance with Byzantine orthodoxy). But nevertheless these individuals assimilated to the ethno-cultural identity which was hegemonic throughout the history of the Byzantine Empire.
Gat’s idea about nationhood is multi-textured, and gives due respect to the fact that the ancients held multiple ideas interleaved in their own minds. Nations were generally conceived in a manner which presupposed common descent and biological unity. That is, the population were descended from legendary founders. And yet they could also acknowledge composite origins. For example, the Romans were a Latin people, but they also had Sabine antecedents at the founding, including some of their most famous patrician families, such as the Claudii. Though the common Latin core persisted down to the fall of the Empire, it was integrative and assimilative. The Roman Empire was multicultural, but it was ruled by a Latin speaking elite. Gat points out that by the 5th century in much of the Roman Empire local languages and identities were fading, so that what had been an core ethno-cultural group was transforming into a majoritarian nation. The local populations conquered by Germanic tribes referred to themselves as “Romans,” in contrast to their rulers. And this illustrates the common sense model which is exposited in Gat’s work, nationality emerges and coalesces organically from loyalties and allegiances at a lower order of organization, and extends gradually upward and outward. The stylized contrast is the idea that nationhood is extruded ex nihilo from the minds of ruling elites in a specific period and place.
All of this is at the front of my mind while reading what’s going in the news right now. Consider two pieces in The New York Times, In a Syrian City, ISIS Puts Its Vision Into Practice and Report Cites ‘Aggressive’ Islamic Push in British City’s Schools. From the first piece:
…The traffic police are based in the First Shariah High School. Raqqa’s Credit Bank is now the tax authority, where employees collect $20 every two months from shop owners for electricity, water and security. Many said that they received official receipts stamped with the ISIS logo and that the fees were less than they used to pay in bribes to Mr. Assad’s government.
“I feel like I am dealing with a respected state, not thugs,” said a Raqqa goldsmith in his small shop as a woman shopped for gold pieces with cash sent from abroad by her husband.
From everything we read it seems that a shockingly high proportion of the front line troops of the Islamic State are psychopaths. By this, I don’t mean that they are normal people caught up in conforming to a cruel system, but that they are literally mentally unstable violent individuals. The fact that the Islamic State can organize a less venal system of political order than what came before in regions under its rule despite the human capital it has to work with tells you something both about the Islamic State and its enemies. It is cliche to suggest that the “nation-states” of the Middle East are all artificial kleptocracies derived from the imaginations of Europeans. What is less palatable is to admit that the Islamic State is presenting a positive vision which can impose order upon its subjects as well its less than mentally normal foot soldiers. I don’t think this is scalable or sustainable, but it is something we have to admit as truth. The Islamic State has Asabiyyah.
The second article is about the fears over Islamic fundamentalism taking over state sponsored faith schools in Britain. Here the back-story is that Britain has long mixed state and religion, ergo, education and religion. So with a large Muslim minority, and in some regions a majority, it is reasonable to expect that Islamic faith schools would emerge. The problem is that modern Britain also demands these schools adhere to particular Western liberal norms. There are debates aired within the article whether the British government’s reports on Islamic fundamentalism within these specific schools are exaggerated or not. That’s not my focus or concern in this post. Rather:
One public high school at the heart of the Trojan Horse controversy, Park View Academy, was ranked as one of the worst schools in Birmingham in the 1990s, with most students failing their final exams. But by 2012 it had received top marks from school inspectors, and nearly four in every five of its students now go on to university.
The dominant element in the Muslim population in the United Kingdom is from Pakistan, with the majority overall being from South Asia. These Muslims are likely Europe’s most socially conservative, and the dominant British ethos of multiculturalism is such that they are given free rein to develop their own identity (which is something somewhat different from that of their South Asian lands of origin). The fact that “British nationals” are prominent in overseas jihadi movements should be a tell that a substantial element within this population has an identification with worldwide Islam that is inimical to their integration into broader British society, which is post-Christian and liberal. Would it be entirely surprising if a population which has a conservative Muslim ethos would have more “buy in” to public education if they felt that that education reflected their deeply held values?
The New York Times piece quotes the British education secretary as saying ‘These people had “a restricted and narrow interpretation of their faith,” and had failed to promote fundamental British values and to challenge.’ Two points. First, where does the British education secretary get off critiquing how British Muslims interpret their faith when there’s been generations of hands off multiculturalism? As a person of no faith I don’t particularly privilege faith in any way, but Western liberals have been playing an inchoate game for several generations about the nature of religious liberty. There is no free lunch. If religious liberty is a fundamental right, then you should expect some religious people to cry foul when you constrain that right. Second, what exactly are British values? Tolerance, diversity, and respect for the Queen? British Muslims isolated in their ethnic ghettos have a clear and crisp voice from conservative and fundamentalist Islamic theorists in terms of what their appropriate standards of behavior and belief should be. I don’t see any such clarity from the British state, so as a matter of description it is entirely predictable that bringing a large population with such a different historical experience would result in a culture clash.
The problem is that Western liberals want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to tolerate diversity, but that diversity is constrained by the fact that their own vision of what is a “fundamental human right” is peculiarly isomorphic with the social consensus of their societies’ elites at a particular time and point. The current focus on LGBT rights is perfectly illustrative of this dynamic. Social and political thinkers who have only recently “evolved” on this issue, within the last 20 years, now wish to promote tolerance for LGBT individuals in a world where broad swaths reject that proposition. The reality is that this is Western cultural imperialism. Of the humane and good sort, just as the British campaign against suttee, but that is what it is. People whose ethos is non-Western see clearly that this is the specific and historically contingent ethos of a Western global elite, while Western thought leaders continue to speak of “universal human rights,” out of time and history, eternal.
Human social existence is thick. It is multi-textured and threaded with diverse strands, some at cross-purposes. When we attempt to model this complexity with thin abstract stylized models, we often fail. In the 19th and early 20th centuries a particular sort of biological model arose of nationality which conceived of the English and German races, where nations were inevitable and primordial expressions of genetic relatedness. After World War II such views fell into disrepute, and ideas of civic nationalism arose which seemed to presume that the nation-state could arise out of the will of elites within a single generation. Both of these are thin models which fail to predict the organic waxing and waning of nations, because they elide causal complexity. With simple models in hand it is hard to understand history and current events, because human behavior can confound in its riotous unpredictably. There are no short cuts here. The maxim to make models as complex as needs be, but no more, is easier to follow in the physical sciences where the models are actually not that complex!
* There are other non-Western candidates proffered for the inventors of love, so this need not be an issue of Eurocentrism.
** Even if romantic love did not loom large in the life of a peasant family in medieval Germany, to give an example, love as a generalized emotion surely existed between mother and child, and so on. I doubt the cognitive competencies here are separable, so humans likely retain a capacity for romantic love even if it is not culturally prominent.
*** Or in the case of narcissists, one suffices.
**** Ergo, even in Muslim lands those Christians who adhered to the Byzantine formula were “Melkites”, “imperial.”