Homo nationalis unpacked: Nationalism and modernity

Ideologies – and nationalism is no exception – work best when they manage to come across as part of an objective natural order rather than as an artificial concept, if not a distorting lens, which enables us to feel at home with the world. Even when they succeed in the former objective, however, they are little more than the latter. Faced with a world which is divided up into nations, Pantelis E. Lekkas writes in his new book, we tend to take the content of national ideology for granted. Here lies a fundamental methodological problem which plagues all studies of nationalism. The fact that we all speak the same «language,» as it were, when referring to our common past, does not allow us to adopt a critical stance toward our era, our society, and, by extension, toward ourselves. Hence, we are born into a system of classifications that is taken for granted and may feel natural but is, in fact, anything but natural. In fact, the idea of Homo nationalis, that is the idea that every man has a nation, is a relatively new concept which did not exist before the arrival of modernity. «Until the end of the 18th century, what we nowadays understand by nationalism was not the obvious way of perceiving reality, or a universal principle for political action, or an indisputable criterion for classifying and organizing the world,» the writer says in the preface of «The Time Game: Nationalism and Modernity» (Athens, Ellinika Grammata, 2001). Lekkas, a professor at Panteion University, follows the sociologist Anthony Giddens in his depiction of society’s transition from a traditional to a modern phase where the decline or, sometimes, demise of traditional certainties prompts «a search for collectivist certainties that suit a world of homeless subjects.» Nationalism, Lekkas asserts, is an answer to the search for a collective ideal which assimilates and, at the same time, transcends traditional bonds such as community, race, class, religion and culture. But what is the crucial difference between nationalism and other modern ideologies? For Lekkas, it is that nationalism entails a connection between the existence of ethnic identity and the claim to popular self-rule. Ethnic groupings demand their recognition as independent political entities by virtue of their claimed cultural homogeneity through time. «The demand for political emancipation is an immediate outcome of the recognition of an independent cultural identity.» Is the nation-state a modern creation? The writer also deals with the main debate between primordialists and modernists. Primordialists, such as Anthony D. Smith, hold that although nationalism is a modern concept, ethnic identity is not. Nations, the theory goes, were there all the time, and their awakening is a product of particular conditions in the modern world. On the contrary, modernists, like Ernest Gellner, believe that nations do not awaken but are instead born in modernity, often appropriating elements which are alien to them. According to this school of thought, events that took place prior to the late 18th century are of minor, if any significance at all. Both approaches, Lekkas claims, are flawed. Primordialists fail to explain why nations have awoken to modernity or why some ancient civilizations did not awake at all. Modernist accounts, on the other hand, cannot explain how it is possible that so many people can be made to share the same illusion, as it were, and even be willing to die for it. For his part, Lekkas argues that the modern nation is not an empty construct. It is a real entity which is not necessarily based on falsified events (although their existence should not be ruled out) but on events which have been «molded so as to fit its (nationalism’s) own version of the past.» Besides, the author suggests, the fact that some of national history has been distorted or fabricated is, practically speaking, irrelevant. Any analysis of nationalism, Lekkas writes, has to begin by acknowledging that «nations exist, even if solely because modern man wants to belong to one of these nations, because he believes that he belongs to one of them and, usually, acts as if he belonged to one of them.» Hence, invented though a part of their historical underpinnings may be, nations are nevertheless real entities. Inventions, however, can be successful or unsuccessful, which, in the case of national history, means convincing or unconvincing. In order to become compelling, an essential prerequisite for fulfilling its main goals – enhancement of social cohesion, solidarity, and mobilization – nationalism reconstructs the national past. It does so through the recruitment of a national mythology. In this process, nationalism unearths – whether literally or not – many disparate pieces which, put together, build a quasi-mythical mosaic. This national mythology includes institutions, a religion, past accomplishments, national heroes, a shared language, customs, and national symbols: flags, hymns, statutes, parades, anniversaries, even stamps. National symbols, like all symbols, are not static but subject to constant modification or evolution, always depending on the political needs of the time. Nationalism is as much concerned with the present and the future as it is with the past. And the past is constantly reread, reformulated, and recalled in a selective manner so as to suit current interests or exigencies. The power of national symbols has to be seen as a broader symptom of modernity. Lekkas points out that memory in the modern world is no longer private – it is no longer transmitted by word of mouth between individuals as in traditional societies of past times. Nationalism – a modern ideology par excellence – is based on constructed and preserved memories. National symbols, one of the most fundamental expressions of national myth, help formulate and reinforce collective memory. Past as unbroken continuity In order to be effective, this recourse to myth has to be selective. It collates disparate events of the past and invents others that never took place to form a unified history of the past as an unbroken continuity. The emphasis on national history as a linear scheme inevitably brings to mind Foucault’s critique of modern history-telling which «deploys a mass of elements that have to be grouped, made relevant, placed in relation to one another to form totalities.» Inevitably, the writer also deals with the perennial structure-agent debate in political theory. Lekkas notes that individuals are «not merely passive subjects of a reality which transcends them.» They may adapt to one version of national mythology or another but «they do not cease to recreate this reality, to be active participants in this mythical world which they reproduce, reshape and enrich with their participation.» Lekkas’s work successfully maps the subtext of national mythology. Theories are laid out with evidence to back them up. The scholarly jargon may sometimes seem ponderous, yet Lekkas’s work offers a lucid survey of previous approaches and some original contributions. The 288-page book contains a long list of footnotes with interesting details and directions for further reading and a useful index.