Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Nationalism & The Undervidual

"Too often, we see East Asia only from an economic perspective, marveling at the undeniable success of China, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and South Korea. Yet these nations have another story to tell, one that owes less to current economic performance than to much older instincts: nationalism and ethnic resentment, the forces that kindled World War I in Sarajevo."
Guy Sorman gets off to a brisk, pithy start hitting the low keys of a moonlight sonata piece at City Journal.

The comparison to the first world war is striking in two obvious ways: the rampant stink of Asian nationalism and the build-up of military forces across East Asia. However, whereas the initial alliances of the first world war were obvious (the Russians with the Serbs, the Germans with the Austrians), there may yet be some uncertainty as to whether the people in Taiwan would find their government in alliance with the U.S., Japan, S.Korea and Vietnam, or alternatively with the PRC. On the one hand, the R.O.C military has for years prepared to defend Taiwan from PRC attack and I believe a majority of people in Taiwan identify themselves as "Taiwanese" rather than "Chinese" and generally regard China with suspicion, if not outright hostility in some quarters. On the other hand, there is the KMT government - just recently re-elected for a second term and the "warming ties" propaganda so often thoughtlessly regurgitated by the pitiful hacks in the western media.

The uncertainty surrounding Taiwan's position is where this particular historical comparison ends.

Sorman's opening paragraph is also noteworthy on account of its' sloppiness.

Nationalism is an "instinct"?

As I mentioned in an earlier post a few days ago, I think the thing behind that which makes people talk about nationalism as if it was a natural fact, is the psychology of place attachment and abstraction. Yet it may be pointed out that nationalism, i.e. the concept of a nation employed as an ideological premise, is not an instinct, but an unacknowledged premise in tacit operation in most people's thinking.

The theoretical boundaries of a "nation" - typically blurred by the continuities of language and culture - are in actual practice defined by the State and its monopolistic control over instrumental violence. For this reason, "nationalism" is artificial - it is an arbitrary construct, arbitrated by the power of the State and given a semblance of something real, something visceral, merely because of the normal psychology of place attachment. Yet the tragic consequence of the strength of nationalism in East Asia is highlighted by the recent stupidity over the Senkakus, as Sorman points out:
"But if China, Taiwan, and Japan were concerned only with economics, they could find other seas to fish and other wells to drill. The dispute is actually symbolic, motivated by old nationalist feelings and the traditional Asian concern with making one’s adversary lose face."
If State arbitrated nationalism may be commonly regarded as an "instinct", and entirely without critical reply, then the question has to be asked as to what tragic consequences this will lead to? Do not the people who render reflexive service to nationalism - to the State's oldest alibi - do these people not thereby become less individual and more... undervidual? 


  1. For me, how nationalism is often presented as natural because it is a product of our biology. We are social animals, and territorial space is inseparable part of the social.

    I see nationalism as a product of a complex array of cultural features are a product of our natural being. Culture is a tool, a social technology, we have no choice but to accept as we are born as social beings within social groups, and we use it to condition our environment. This environment is not only a natural world but a social world as well. Culture communicates knowledge. This knowledge is the basis of our identities. Identities condition status within groups as well as amongst other populations. populations need space and they have always been in competition against other populations. It may be one reason a land, a people, and a nation can illicit visceral behavior.

    I believe we would have nationalism even if we didn't have states.... states are simply applying a tool that is and was available prior to their “rise”…. I think it would simply be under another term if states didn’t exist yet possess the very same characteristics…but that’s just a pie in the sky theory like a world without representative politics.... I do think nationalism is very much part of this dynamic of the I, We, and the Others.

    I also see nationalism as an efficient mechanism of representation that minimizes perceived costs for making decisions and garnering support in regards to whatever matters of concern are being contested. the vast majority only have a sense about what is at stake, yet seem to perceive the issue at hand as vital to their identity as a social group which is being threatened by other groups. all this involves contesting space as well. Nationalism often generates support for action fairly easily as it pledges action in general directions relative to other perceived undesirable directions. In a socially complex world, such simple pledges are very attractive when we have a finite amount of time and energy. Nationalism takes far less energy than one would use if one were to engage in contesting and understand the complex issues nationalism objectifies. It's dangerous, but attractive as a choice as well.

  2. Philippe,

    I don't know of anyone who would claim nationalism as a product of biology. That's a very strange thing to say.

    On the point about territoriality... I would say that private property may be one way of expressing territoriality, rather than something opposed to territoriality.

    Private property, is, however in logical conflict with the territorial claims of a State (or a State substitute).

  3. Oh well, I dont think it is that strange to see nationalism as a product of our biology as social animals, because nationalism needs human social behavior to exist....everything we do has tinges of I, We, and the Other which are pillars to how we organize our engagement....

    private property is one way....but it is very much not the only way humanity has organized space. I remember reading or listening to something that pointed out many cultures, prior to the expansion of colonial powers, never had maps (an important tool in the liberal ethos of private property and the state)....and interesting aspect of the argument was the lack of map proving division of space was a conditioning factor in justifying the New World as not owned by anyone.....

  4. "...nationalism needs human social behavior to exist...."

    Well OK, but is that not then a trivial statement? You seem to be saying something like "people must be alive first, and then they can have nationalism". Am I missing something?

    "...private property is one way....but it is very much not the only way humanity has organized space."

    I don't think anyone would claim it is the "only" way to organize space or to express territoriality. The argument, however, would be that the private property principle is the best way to do so.

    "I remember reading or listening to something that pointed out many cultures, prior to the expansion of colonial powers, never had maps..."

    They may not have had flushing toilets and indoor plumbing either, but I would guess they knew better than to shit in their neighbour's food.

  5. it would be trivial, except in ur article you wrote:

    "For this reason, "nationalism" is artificial - it is an arbitrary construct, arbitrated by the power of the State and given a semblance of something real, something visceral, merely because of the normal psychology of place attachment."

    nationalism is not artificial as it is a product of humanity as social animals just as the state is.... inseparable for our humanity and therefore possess a degree of legitimacy and effacement because they continue to be allowed to exist.....and ur right we "knew better than to shit in their neighbour's food"....but until something better than states and nationalism comes along to compete against others as collectives....they will continue to exist as the location where we "shit"....but i'll stop there because u are giving off vibes of comtempt as u seem to have a habit to....

  6. Philippe,

    If I am "giving off vibes of contempt", (I wasn't actually, but I will now...) then it is because you seem to be expressing yourself as one half logical fallacy and one half theistic Statism.


    "...nationalism is not artificial as it is a product of humanity..."

    This statement is a straightforward logical contradiction; an "artifact" is something, which by definition is produced by people, or perhaps at a greater level of abstraction, a "culture".

    So in fact, nationalism is clearly an artifact because it is "produced by humanity". More specifically, in my own view, nationalism can be explained as an artifact of the scale at which political power is sought.


    Things that are artificial (produced by people), may be contrasted with things that are natural (not produced by people). Your statements only make sense if I assume you are trying to make the argument that nationalism is in some sense "natural".

    When you write, for instance, that "...the state is.... inseparable for [sic] our humanity..." you seem to be ascribing a naturalistic origin to the State, a corrollary of which might be that anyone who denies the authority of the State thereby denies his own humanity.

    The problem I have with this is that it conflates an ethical matter (the moral status of coercing other people) into an ontological one (people are "social animals") leading to the error that people who oppose coercion must necessarily be in some sense "against" social life.

    But the one is very different from the other, and the conflation of the two is a very low thing indeed.


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