Friday, January 25, 2008

Empires and nations

The earlier postings on Armenians, Jews, Turks, and Israelis (and Kurds!) cut a small way into the Big Issue of empires versus nations. A century ago, much of the world's population lived in multiethnic, multireligious empires, ones rules by a dominant group defined by ethnicity and often religion, with other ethnic and religious groups subordinated in political power and civil rights. Some countries (like the United States and France) were already republics, while others, like Great Britain, had mixed republican-imperial features, a combination of aristocracy and popular representation. But the imposing, centuries-old structures of the pre-1914 era were empires like the Austro-Hungarian (dominated by Austrian Germans and Hungarians and which ruled over Christians, Jews, and even some Muslims), the Russian (which ruled over many non-Russian Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims), the Ottoman (which ruled over non-Turks and non-Muslims), and the Chinese (ethnically mostly Han Chinese, but with a mix of languages). Once empire and theocracy were the way of the world. But they have had their day.

The last century has seen a dramatic growth in the number of nation-states and the dismantling of empires, in three major waves: after World War One, after World War Two, and after the Cold War. Clearly, if we want to understand the modern world, we need to, not just note the fact, but understand the why. Let's step back and take in the basic forces at work here.

The most fundamental is the incompatibility of empire and modernity - they're as incompatible as tribalism and modernity, or modernity and theocracy. National self-rule is essential in the modern world and, indeed, one of the pre-conditions of "being modern." The political unit of a nation-state, republic, or representative democracy is a citizen, who has equal, or nearly equal, rights with other citizens. Citizens participate in society (in political life, but not just political life), a sine qua non of constituting a modern society. Political and social units are integrated to an historically unprecedented degree. Empires, with their aristocracies and monarchies, were a whole world apart. Their political basis was narrow. Their political units were radically heterogeneous and unequal: ruling castes, and conquered ruled with varying levels of granted toleration. Outside their narrow political bases, empires often had ignorant and backwards - and in all cases, helpless - populations. These were subjects, not citizens. This type of political structure is compatible with theocracy as well, although it isn't a requirement.

From the fall of the western Roman empire in the late 400s, it took 1200 years for nations-states to be accepted in principle as the organized basis of political life and, even then, only in western Europe. It took another 300 years to sort out which nations would have states, a not-entirely settled issue even now. This question lies at the root of the great partition wars of the last century, the largest being India, but also encompassing Palestine, Cyprus, and Ireland, for example.

At the highest level, this is the evolution at work in the Middle East and Africa, which the nation-state principle and practice are still not fully accepted or even understood. Outside the West, the rise of radical Islam is the main force today in conflict with nationalism. Within the West, there is increasing confusion - especially in Europe, and especially among European elites - about the necessity of nationalism, instead of empire. (The EU is, in some ways, an empire-by-stealth, what happens when nations given up their sovereignty to non-representative supernational institutions lacking democratic legitimacy.) And Europe might very well be faced with theocratic demands in another generation. Already, parts of certain European cities have seen the abandonment of state sovereignty to Islamic-tribal custom, the first such development since the end of the Middle Ages.

Europeans and some Americans might be surprised to hear this. A central postmodern myth, upon which the EU is built, is that World War Two discredited nationalism. The problem is that for the countries responsible for World War Two (primarily Germany, as well as the Soviet Union to a smaller extent) were not fighting for nationalism, but for supernational ideals, like racism. (Nothing will destroy a nation-state faster than racial ideologies - the two are incompatible.) In any case, Europe's great nationalist moment was not 1939, but 1914. Even then, the First World War was a result of the implosion of the empires of central-eastern Europe, not something about the nation-states of western Europe. These empires had started economic and social modernization before they were politically modern, which in turn created impossible contradictions that then did them in. Their final manifestations were the supernational or "pan" ideologies, like pan-Turkism, Aryanism, and other racist movements.

To be part of the modern world means, among other things, living in a nation-state. That excludes much of the social and political practice that dominated human existence for most of recorded history and all of prehistory. For those of us living on the other side of this divide, the historical reality is often forgotten. When we encounter conflicts across this divide, we look around at how we live, but don't see; hear, but don't listen.

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