Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Nationalism: Hymns Ancient and Modern

Mini Teaser: Why can't the world seem to settle down into nice well-ordered democratic nation-states on the Western model?

by Author(s): Robin W. Fox

There are three things you can do to the paleolithic hunter that is
Man (the tiny episode we call "History"--at best the few thousand
years of the interglacial in which we live--has done nothing to
change our basic psycho-physico-social nature that evolved over two
and a half million years of the paleolithic). The three things are:
You can deny him his evolved needs either by simple deprivation or by
imposing institutions that distort them; you can satisfy or tap those
needs either directly or by modern institutions that utilize or at
least do not frustrate them; you can figure out how to fool the
evolved system so that we utilize atavistic motives to modern ends.
The current task of history and the behavioral sciences should be to
utilize the insights of evolutionary biology to help sort out where
we are satisfying, where frustrating and where fooling our
paleolithic selves. Most contemporary savants are running in the
opposite direction, and in circles to boot.

Up From Tribalism

The evolutionary line leading to the powerful "sense of belonging"
that the nationalism-is-modern school cannot deny but cannot
accommodate is simple. In the non-human primates we find intense
sociality within the troop, and equally intense xenophobia directed
to outsiders. In our closest relatives, the chimpanzees, this goes
beyond mere defense of range or territory to cooperative, predatory,
cannibalistic and ultimately genocidal attacks on other groups. But
above all there is the strong sociality and group identification.
This is reflected in the earliest of hominid societies, the
australopithecines, from at least three-and-a-half million years ago.
Small groups wandered the east African savannahs, scavenging and
catching small game. As the scale of hunting increased with the
advent of Homo erectus, the two-million year upsurge in brain size
and social complexity took off on its upward trajectory. By the close
of the paleolithic, larger bands making up "linguistic tribes" (up to
five thousand individuals) with ceremonial cave centers emerged. Then
came the neolithic revolution--agriculture and herding--and the rest,
literally, is history.

The sequence: primate troop--australopithecine horde--paleolithic
band--linguistic tribe--tribal confederation--chieftainship--tribal
state, and on up to city states, kingdoms, empires, etc, iswell
enough known. What is not well understood is how each level draws on
the lower levels. Thus the nationalism-is-modern school has a hard
time dealing with the "tribal" elements of nations, and the political
anthropologists often do not want to see the underpinnings of the
human band or tribe as lying in the primate troop. But just as early
human bands three million years ago drew on the socio-emotional
strengths of their ancestral primate heritage, so the tribe drew on
the strengths of the band, and, ultimately, the kingdom or state on
the strengths of the tribe.

At the heart of every nation then is tribal feeling writ large. And
this is at once both the secret of the peculiar strength of national
feeling and also its potential weakness. For when the nation is too
large and too heterogeneous, as many modern nation-states and
super-states become, then the bounds of paleolithic credibility
become dangerously stretched, and we resort to the third alternative:
fooling our paleolithic emotions. (So far we seem to have succeeded
best in this third case with drugs, which fool the brain into
thinking they are endogenous opiates. This fooling business is a
dangerous road to travel.)

One thing that characterizes the basic hominid social unit is
kinship. The paleolithic linguistic tribe, while split into many
bands or clans, preserved the idea that all those who spoke the same
tongue were kin, usually by some legend of common descent. This was
plausible, and explains what must often seem like a pathological
devotion to language as a marker of social identity in modern
nationalism. But the linguistic tribe was probably never more than
five thousand strong. When Aristotle set that limit to the number of
free citizens in an ideal city state, he knew whereof he spoke.
Beyond that limit we must resort to fictions of kinship in order to
tap (or fool) the emotions of group solidarity. Modern nationalists
know this very well, and the linkage of language and "blood"
(kinship) becomes an essential part of their racial rhetoric. Nations
are big tribes. Thus rulers do indeed become "little fathers" of
their people, and the nation itself a "mother-" or "father-land."
When the "sibling-citizens" are clearly not of common descent, as in
the United States or (former) USSR, then the focus has to be a
sibling of a parent, as in Uncle Sam or Uncle Joe. If we can all be
children (or nephews) of the same ancestors ("We few, we happy few,
we band of brothers") and speak the same tongue, then we can be
fooled into thinking we are the same tribe: familiars--literally of
the same family.

The fiction is very effective and not only nations but religious
orders and political and social movements freely use the rhetoric of
kinship to arouse the same feelings of defensive solidarity. But by
its very ambitions the modern industrial nation state (especially its
super-state version) strains this fiction to its breaking point. Even
so, "patriotic" appeals are never to self-interest but always to kin
altruism ("Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can
do for your country" etc.) But not only do very few people except a
few cranks believe in the brotherhood of man, very few others believe
that their co-citizens are really kinsfolk. If they did, they might
behave better towards them. The fiction, in the end, ceases to be
effective, especially if the pseudo-kinship has been forced on them.
The "all those who speak the same language are kin" ruse fails
miserably when one is forced to speak the language in question. The
appeal to territory or a shared past--both elements of the
troop-band-tribe scheme--is equally difficult to sustain as the
territory gets too diverse and the past too diffuse or painful to be
plausibly described as "shared." We can draw on the primitive sense
of kin-tribe solidarity just so far in supporting admittedly modern
nationalism. The disaster comes when we try to force the fiction
further than its bounds of plausibility. The paleo-cynic in us
rebels. The shotgun marriages of modern nationalism are suddenly on
the rocks--maintained only by force, duplicity and economic necessity.

One other way to maintain "national feeling" is the equally atavistic
call to war. "Defense of the realm" or destruction of its enemies
taps the deeply programmed "defend the clan" motivations and the
primate xenophobia. But this is difficult to sustain over long
periods with any intensity, since paleolithic "wars" were more in the
nature of raids or brief skirmishes. It worked well enough with the
incessant warring of small professional armies in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, but could only work in short bursts in the
conditions of modern total war. The appeal works very effectively,
but soon outstays its welcome.

Small is Workable

The moral of the tale told this way is very simple: The only
nationalisms that will ultimately work will be small nationalisms in
small national entities. These can plausibly draw on the basic
motivations to sustain themselves. If the larger nation-states and
super-states are to maintain themselves through the "nationalistic"
mode of social integration, then the paradox is that they must try to
appeal to something other than raw national sentiment to achieve
this. Rallying round white, European, English-speaking,
Dixie-costumed, Uncle Sam, will simply not do for the modern United
States, where at least a third of the nation cannot possibly feel
kinship with him. As one of my Hispanic students put it almost
vehemently, "Uncle Sam no es mi tio¡" Some more subtle appeal,
perhaps to enlightened self-interest ("you are better off here than
in any nation on earth"), will have to replace the raw national
appeal, which cares nothing about having superior economics, but only
about being superior people. This appeal to self-interest is what at
the moment seems to be tenuously holding together British and French
Canada, and for that matter the English and Scots, as well as the
Asian and African examples. The "national" sentiments here must work
on a lower level, and as we have suggested, may give some aspirant
but non-homogeneous nations like Scotland their own troubles.

In all this the USA in particular affects pious spectator status.
This is all happening "elsewhere." For the optimists--the
end-of-history crowd included--the world is rapidly going to adopt
our own form of perfectionism and all will be
democratically/capitalistically well. For the pessimists, it is the
same old story of the world failing to live up to our own high
standards and making its usual un-American mess of things. For the
isolationists, we should leave them to it; for the internationalists,
we must be the world's policeman (with or without the UN as suits
us); for the pragmatists, we should intervene only when our national
interests are at stake. But one finds very few people taking
seriously the proposition that we are not some kind of utopian
solution but very much part of the problem: The massive distrust of
government and the growing power of separatist sentiments is as
potentially destructive to us as it was to the USSR. It has happened
once in our history, with terrible costs.

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