On whether nations have navels

Born to Jewish parents in Prague, Ernest Gellner got firsthand experience of the evil side of nationalism when his family was forced to flee Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939. Despite his traumatic childhood memories, Gellner did not just discard nationalism as a wrong turn in human development or as some barbaric instinct that resides deep within the human psyche. Rather, his prescient analysis of national ideology is as sophisticated as the legacy of nationalism is brutal. Unlike Enlightenment liberals and communists who both, albeit for different reasons, believed that nationalism was destined to wither and fade, Gellner considered national ideology a solution to some of the most acute problems that emerged with the advent of modernity. For him nationalism was a distinctively modern phenomenon. In «Nationalism,» his last word on the subject before his death in 1995, Gellner, a former professor at the London School of Economics and at Cambridge, offers a summary of his main arguments which are more thoroughly spelled out in his now classic text «Nations and Nationalism,» first published in 1983. Nationalism, for Gellner, is the result of the transition from agrarianism to industrialization and the ensuing urbanization – in other words, the passage from a pre-modern to a modern society. In pre-modern societies, people communicate with each other through traditional local cultures. However, as peasants – that is, people from different «low cultures» – come together in the sprawling industrial urban centers of Europe, there is the need for an impersonal, context-free language that will enable strangers to communicate with one another. Modern societies demand cultural homogeneity and hence the need arises for a «high culture» that glues people together. Establishing a formalized «high culture» requires an educational system which, in turn, requires a state apparatus to direct and control it. Nationalism is the demand for a state that fulfills the above needs. As a result, Gellner says that «it is nationalism which engenders nations, and not the other way round.» Nationalism, the author says, is not the product of historical contingency. It’s rather the inevitable outgrowth of certain historical conditions, such as technological innovation, economic growth and high mobility which are common in many parts of the world, although by no means universal. Nationalism is the inescapable fate of most people, but still only a remote possibility for others. Does the past matter? A central debate by scholars of nationalism over the years has been the conflict between the so-called primordialists and the modernists. Primordialists hold that although nationalism is a modern concept, ethnic identity is not. Nationalism is only its modern articulation, and the nation’s past matters a great deal. On the other hand, modernists like Gellner believe that the world as we know it was created in the late 18th century and that events prior to this date are of minor, if any, significance at all. During the famed «Warwick Debates» – a series of discussions between Gellner and Anthony D. Smith, an ex-student of Gellner’s, that were abruptly interrupted by the former’s unexpected death in August of 1995 – the Czech-born author famously asked, «Do nations have navels?» During the argument between the creationists and the evolutionists on the origin of man, Gellner said, in one of the lectures that appears in the current volume, people thought it made sense to ask whether Adam had a navel or not. Had he been created by God, the rationale was, one would be tempted to believe that Adam would be navel-less. Some creationists, however, pointed out that if God had created the world at a definite date, it would function as if it had already been in existence for a long time. Rivers, for one example, would be flowing as if their sources were already in place. Similarly, Adam would have a navel, even if that performed no function whatsoever. For Gellner, it is the same with nations. Their ethnic past is rather like a navel. «Some nations have it and some don’t and in any case it’s inessential.» What is crucial is that modernity generates the need for a navel. The Estonian example Gellner makes his case by referring to the Estonians. At the beginning of the 19th century, he writes, they did not even have a name for themselves, let alone any ethnic self-consciousness. They referred to themselves as «people who lived on the land.» However, using typical 19th century means, namely a national theater, museums and education, the Estonians were very successful in molding a vibrant culture. The fact that there is no historical evidence tying their culture to a state is unimportant. Continuity and symbolism may help, but again the Estonians, Gellner stresses, created nationalism ex nihilo. The absence of a navel is so blatant that Estonian nationalism did not even bother to invent one. For Gellner, the modernist theory holds even if his account is true for a minority of states – this only proves that the existence of a navel is contingent and, at the end of the day, redundant. Critics have pointed out that Gellner’s emphasis on economic and social factors in explaining the ascendance of nationalism makes him blind to the emotional appeal of national ideology. In Smith’s words, it is «difficult to see how a purely cultural artifact could inspire the loyalty and self-sacrifice of countless people.» Gellner’s theory is too general and too functionalist, in the sense that he identified no parent for nationalism other than the needs of modern society. Nor can his explanation account for the resurgence of nationalism in post-industrial societies. Barring any theoretical objections about the root causes of nationalism, it is hard to disagree with his view that there can be no solution or answer to ethnic disputes. Some solutions may be more unfair than others but, as a whole, there are no «just» solutions. The right to self-rule will always run up against a number of incommensurable criteria: Indeed, should we give priority to demography, history or geography? Balkan nationalism demonstrates that this question is full of gray areas. Nevertheless, Gellner retains a scientific optimism that is fed by what he calls the «de-fetishization of land.» The previous century witnessed a successful de-territorialization of nationalism. A country’s leverage and image these days depends on its annual growth rate and economic strength rather than on its size on the map. Gellner believed that stability and continuity are the safest path to prosperity. Those whose living standards have improved are less likely to risk all that by yielding to the temptation of violent behavior than those who live in fear or despair. Rarely, says Gellner, do the citizens of socially and economically advanced states become good and willing soldiers. Ernest Gellner’s «Nationalism» is available in Greek from Alexandria Publishers. 168 pages.