Magazine article New Internationalist

The Rise (and Falling) of the Nation State

Magazine article New Internationalist

The Rise (and Falling) of the Nation State

Article excerpt


The imperial armies of Ancient Rome and China conquered in the name of the emperor not the nation. In Europe in medieval times ordinary people owed their allegiance not to a state but to a feudal lord. Wars were fought between local aristocrats - like the Duke of Bourgogne (above) or the Earl of Warwick - not kings or queens. In other parts of the world, societies were divided along cultural or ethnic lines, but again, borders as such were fluid and ever-changeable.


The business of nation-building has always been a bloody one. Feudal lords were forced to give up their regional autonomy by kings who wanted to rule over larger areas. It took the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) to disentangle England from France, and the murder of thousands of Albigensians in the South of France to really establish France as a nation. Nation-states finally became a reality in North America and Western Europe in the latter half of the eighteenth century and in Latin America soon after.

Creating a nation-state was one thing; making the people who lived there believe in it was quite another. As writer and former Prime Minister of Piedmont, Massimo d'Azeglio, pointed out when the nationstate of Italy was created in 1861: "We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians.'


As a woman, I have no country,' wrote Virginia Woolf. In most of the new nation-states women and the working class were not regarded as citizens. Those without property could not vote and they were unable to stand for Parliament. Many nation-states built their identity through displays of military prowess and often by means of military conflict - from which women were also excluded. Leaders spoke of 'the Motherland' but nationalism was essentially a means of cooperation between moneyed patriarchies. As the vote was extended to women and to the working class, it became necessary for those patriarchies to be able to manipulate national identity in order to maintain loyalty and control.


The principle of Sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation: no body of men [sic], no individual, can express authority that does not emanate from it,' asserted the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen in 1792.

American Independence (right, the Boston Tea Party, 1773) and the French Revolution created new national models which relied heavily on written constitutions, national flags and anthems. They also introduced a new concept of democratic citizenship - one which stirred ordinary people to revolt against the monarchy. Popular revolts in Europe were paralleled in the New World - in 1791 Toussaint L'Ouverture led an insurrection of black slaves that produced the independent republic of Haiti in 1804. Patriotism became the ultimate loyalty, supposedly superseding all other ties.


As European empires expanded to the Americas, Asia, Africa and the Middle East, the new rulers not only imposed colonial rule. They also brought their own model of the nation - state which was alien to most of the indigenous populations. The colonial powers divided up the world along straight lines which separated village from village and family from family in the name of imperial allegiance. …

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