Ernest Gellner: Selected Philosophical Themes - Vol. 2

By Ernest Gellner | Go to book overview

Chapter 11

Scale and nation

1

Nationalism

One of the obvious features of the modern world is the increase in the scale of social and political units. In the past, large, sometimes enormous empires existed, but these were relatively eccentric and above all, they were sociologically contingent. Their existence was not necessary. On the whole, the units which composed them could survive as well, or nearly as well, or better, if the totality remained fragmented. (If the Wittfogel thesis is correct, then some of the major river valleys, dependent on irrigation systems, may be an exception to this.) By and large, it is the empires which require explanation, whilst their break-up, or the persistence of fragmentation, do not. Self-sufficiency, local autonomy and fragmentation appear more natural and inherent in the available social equipment than their contrary.

The situation is now changed. It is the large and effective units which seem natural, and it is their breakdown and fragmentation which is eccentric and requires special explanation. Small units do indeed survive, but one may well suspect that they are parasitic on the larger ones in various ways.

All social units that manage to survive rely on a variety of mechanisms for their self-perpetuation. A sense of loyalty and identification on the part of the population is one of the factors which contribute to such cohesion as happens to be achieved. It is a factor which, quite plainly, is not always present in the same measure or proportion. It appears to be stronger in the modern world, in the attachment to the large units which are so characteristic of it, than it was in the past. What is even more striking, this strength of the sentiment seems to be quite independent of deliberate manipulation or stimulation by those political units which are the happy objects of this feeling of loyalty. Of course they do often foment and encourage it, but it can be and often is powerful quite independently of such encouragement. The striking demonstration of this is the force of such sentiments on

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