There is much talk about national identity and culture in the news which appears to have come to a head with the vote to leave the EU.It’s a fact that the very idea of a “national identity” is a fairly recent construct anyway. The whole idea of having a country or even a nationality to call your very own ,ruled by a democracy or a king or dictator, peopled by individuals who cleave to a nation state who are entitled to self-determination is a curiously recent idea in world terms, but you’d think it had been set in stone forever by such bodies as the United Nations.It’s best to remember that no matter how much you might feel to be “Irish”, “English” or “French”, there’ll be someone in the world who will never have heard of your country of origin and in fact your country’s name might only be a passing phase anyway. It may be changed or forgotten within another couple of hundred years. Before we had countries there were a variety of tribes with such exotic names as Lombards, Suevi, Franks, Burgundians, Franks, Siling Vandals, Asding Vandals, Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Thuringians, Bavarians, Alemanni, Saxons, Angles,Jutes, Danes, Norwegians, Normans,Icelanders and Swedes
There’s talk that England wants to reclaim its individuality ; Scotland is straining for another referendum to break away as a separate entity.In Ireland we have two states , each divided by agreements and sub-divided within those same agreements into sub-sects of cultural aspirants , such as monarchial unionists and republican nationalists. In this respect ,we appear to have more and more peoples wanting to exert their group identities within nations.We hear of Russian expansionism and ISIS wanting to re-set the clock to Day Zero and create their very own new country.
The EU attempted to transcend all of that by gathering the disparate grouping beneath the banner of a united identity.People kick against subsuming their “identity” into such a group.Their belief is that by doing so they’ll lose part of themselves or their”culture”
Questions are also being asked whether or not the “nation state” is really such a good idea given that economies operate on a global reach now and many economists and political scientists are questioning whether this is the best set-up for running the planet’s affairs in coming times ,when feeding the world’s growing humanity needs to be tackled on a global scale .As David Attenborough has already pointed out , some kind of control over fecund humanity’s wont to procreate , will have to be tackled if we are to feed ourselves adequately in the near future.As a species we have actually been too successful for our own good and we might yet starve ourselves to death if we cannot slow down and re-learn how to distribute foodstuffs to the peoples of the world and possibly put some kind of constraint on our breeding.Humanity has risen from about 2 billion people when I was born in 1952, to over 6 billion in 2016 ,some sixty four years later . This is happening mostly in developing countries but it only a matter of years before there’ll be a need to feed them all. At this rate , within another forty years there will be 10 billion people living on earth and we’ll have to manage both them and our environment.We humans have atendency to make an awful lot of mess, so it will have to be cleaned up.
The fact is that local, “national” needs ,many times, push the global needs to one side as though a nation’s responsibility was simply to itself and not to worry about anyone else.Well..we’ll have to worry about them soon otherwise we’ll be subsumed in a mountain of human waste.
It’s a fact that the idea of being in a “nation” is an idea which is roughly only about 200 years old .Before that there was no such thing as a passport to travel the world. Only the very rich could do such a thing anyway. The world was smaller for everyone and most people lived their entire lives within a very narrow range which may have only encompassed a small village or a small town .After all , the horse was the only means of conveyance.If you travelled in Europe, by coach, there were no passport checks at borders and “borders” as we would recognise them didn’t really exist.People had cultural and ethnic differences and identities , mostly shaped by the landscapes and climates where they lived,their skin- colour and facial sculpting gradually carved by the climate and the weather they faced over eons of time, the foods they ate or could grow or obtain locally.Those things didn’t define in any way the “political place” they lived in, though; just their diet , customs, physical shapes and forms of language.
Human’s earliest politics were founded when ancient humanity began to cooperate to defend themselves and that really only happened 10,000 years ago when hunting and gathering became the earliest farming and grain had to be stored and defended .Grain was literally the first “gold” and a means of currency.Politics and price -fixing began right there, when people settled into stable farming communities and began to trade.Religions were added to the recipe to instill social cohesion and a form of control. That’s how economic and cultural alliances were first made.
During conflicts for more lands and more expansion ,peoples adjoining were absorbed by the winners of battles , conflicts and wars, so ,in turn , groupings or “nations” grew bigger under the control of the most successful chieftains. These chieftains operated and interacted with a small hierarchal group, which made liasons further down the chain. Larger land grabs needed even more liasons and so politics grew. and social complexity grew with it.Food storage was the main thing .Food was always needed to feed everyone , which is why wars are usually fought.It always comes down to food.
In all of this expansion, there were nothing that we’d ever recognise as “nations” or “nation-states”.The winners simply added those conquered peoples to their ever-growing empires , never giving regard to any sense of identity or nationality.In those societies, if farming wasn’t successful , starvation would follow so they were mostly self-governing except when some kind of law -enforcement was required.That’s what people paid their local governance for ….protection against crime and land disputes.That’s all they needed government for.
Right up to the 17th , 18th, 19th and right into the 20th century, rulers didn’t really do much “ruling” except to gather taxes and gather up men when they wanted to fight wars.Most people had no real notion about the push and pull of kings.Many that emigrated to America in the 19th century might have known the name of their local village but had no real notion from which country they actually hailed, because they weren’t educated.In Russia the Czar had no real notion of how his subjects lived and in the 18th century the Swiss and the Dutch never needed any kind of central government at all.
Nowadays we have maps of the modern world with all sorts of lines on them that no one would have recognised . The Romans developed the idea of an empire of the conquered known world and the French, Spanish and the English followed that template about a thousand years later but there were still no “nations” grouped into neat little boxes.There was constant warfare but when rulers realised that, as trading grew, it was better to accrue wealth than to waste it on wargames. That required political negotiation. It was only at that point in the 16th century that sovereign states were finally “set in stone” but there was still no sense of a “national” identity for a “people”.That’s not really very long ago. There were kings or rulers and then there were all the rest of the lesser beings under that king’s “protection”.Some of these kings assumed a “Divine Right To Rule” and believed it was their divined destiny…because…well it just was ….and it suited them very nicely to believe that.Someone like Henry V111 almost made that notion into an artform, such was his personal belief in his “place” in the scheme of things.
The Industrial Revolution was the real game -changer which gathered people together on a grand scale to drive the wheels of the new empires.Industrialists were dutifully awarded, feted and honoured for owning coalmines , steel factories, woollen mills and breweries ,so you had to become politically aware. Being in business gave you political power because you were the master of men and you could supply the raw materials for driving both the nation’s needs and the paraphanelia of war.
Changes appeared in the 17th century revolutions in America and France. There were no “Americans” or “French” before those upheavals. Nobody in France considered themselves “French” in 1800 and about half of its residents didn’t speak French at all , but a century later by the time Queen Victoria was on her deathbed in England, at the beginning of the 20th century , everyone in France though of themselves as French.The “English” had a much greater sense of a national identity even though their kings and rulers were already mixed through with German and French bloodstock. In Russia, the revolution of 1905 put paid to the ages-old rule of the Czars entirely.Centuries of a particular kind of life ended immediately.When Italy unified in the mid 19th century a tiny percentage of its people spoke Italian; something like two or three percent.There was no sense of a “nation”…just a collection of individuals speaking many languages.
The World War of 1914-18 broke down all those empires such as the Hapsburgs that had been built from many diverse peoples and then the maps were re-drawn along mostly lines of the language spoken in areas, specific regional ties, or perceived social stereotypical oddities. This was the real start of the idea of a “national identity” for most people.
You might say that “nationalism” is a modern way of thinking which after a couple of centuries, has also become obsolete in the modern 21st century, where Facebook “friends” across the planet probably outnumber the number of local alliances any one person might make locally, in a country, on a day-to-day basis.
Newspapers once standardised the public response for any event ,for a controlling elite and gave a sense of jingoistic cohesion to subjects and citizens, especially when there was an immediate need to recruit them for the latest war or politically -enhancing economic adventure, but this has fast begun to break down with the encroachment of technology , the internet and its multi-faceted opinion -makers. There are many opinions out there. Modern governments also have a stake in educating the public in their”care” to mould them into thinking the same as they do. To the modern mind this can be intrusive We’ve taken to calling this the “Nanny State” and even the neo- BrewDog Post -Modernist Brewery have taken to brewing a non-alcoholic ale calling itself by that same ironic name.
The very idea of “policing a border” came as a result of Prussia’s need to apply citizenship papers in the late 19th century . These, in turn ,were the prior result of establishing the first unemployment benefits scheme for the dwellers of its villages.There was a need to establish exactly what a “Prussian” actually was so that when they eventually emigrated across the land to work they could prove their “national identity”. This also led to a census being taken and the establishment of border- controls.Bureaucracy had arrived and bureaucrats began to multiply exponentially as governments exerted greater and greater control over the everyday life of the citizenry. It was at this point that the idea of the “State” actually being your own identifier, became the norm .The State became the teat at which we all suckled and which we now expected to care for us.It appeared in Europe first but soon everyone wanted a piece of this action too, but it never really changed the facts that across the globe ethnic mixtures and multi-lingualism is still very widespread, while cultures and races blend into each other continuously .
The idea of the single homogenous “nation” falls flat on its face when the diversity of people in any land is considered and the fact there have been about 200 civil wars waged across the planet during this past fifty years alone …from Ireland to Iraq, Syria and Israel.There have been fractious successes too such as in Australia and America where many diverse immigrants became new “nations” , shoving aside the indigenous inhabitants ,albeit relinquishing their former alliances to the land of their forefathers’ births to do so and in the process becoming something else….nationalists in a newly- named nation.
What’s left of nationalism or nationhood in the early 21st century amounts to a concocted nationalism revolving around sport such as football, dire droning anthems and possibly football chants and even awful kitch fabulations such as the Eurovision Song Contest, which appears to be as contrived to promote a sense of nationalistic competition much as a Barnum and Bailey Circus once did.
It is a better substitute than the wars that previously provided that same competitive urge in the previous century, but that’s about the best that can be said.
The strange thing is that something like the European Union has better demarcated these relatively recent nation states than anything else and in doing so has now offered profitable economies within the world’s largest marketplace. It might not inspire a flag-waving fervour of belonging , but strangely enough , those small states which were too small to be individual competitors could now compete on a relatively equal basis even though their smaller sizes should not have merited it otherwise. In the end though , it was certainly better than the war that had riven Europe into shreds some short seventy years previously.We’d come a long way.
Anyone embracing this new/old pre- Industrial Revolution form of networking might think it spells the end of “nations” as we’ve recently come to know them, but it should be realised that we have just spent the longest possible time of non-violence internationally ….with a few exceptions which are beyond the control of the European states ; There is also as our own Irish/British debacle , which the EU, very recently ,helped at least in part, to defuse if not totally resolve.
There is an alternative scenario , of course , in that the EU might begin to self -destruct and return us to a competitive system of competing “nations” which might ,in theory, lead us down the road to wars, economic or otherwise, once again, but essentially the idea of individual nations and nationhood has been broken on the anvil of worldwide interconnecting technology anyway and the next century might well prove just what a chimera that idea of individuals making up parochial nations , always actually was.
Our nation …our birthplace….. and place in it, is essentially an accident of birth in any case.