Your Passport, Please
What are nations for?
A nation is a group of people identifying with one another, recognising a shared connection derived from ancestry, kinship, location, language, culture or belief. Or perhaps they are just ruled by the same government. Or decisive historic events welded them into a nation, willingly or not.
We could define three main kinds of nation: first nations, nations and states.
Nationhood is complex. There are over 180 states in the world and some 15,000 identifiable peoples. Some peoples are spread across different states, and some states encompass different peoples. This becomes a problem when one people feels oppressed. Which is common. People have a legitimate need to feel they have some control over their lives.
First nations are conglomerations of clans and tribes sharing a native identity, culture and origin. They usually trace their heritage back to a common ancestor or source. Most first nations existed before recorded history, possessing an inherent natural, ethnic nationhood.
Nations are variously welded together by historical events and ruling élites. They possess a created or imposed emotional integrity. Sometimes nations possess sufficient social glue to hang together, and sometimes not – or they tread a narrow line between institutional unity and social diversity. Before states arose, nations had heartlands without definitive boundaries, held together by traditional power-arrangements, custom or kinship.
States are governmental entities formed by rulers, élites or political agreements, largely for consolidating power, often without the consent of subject peoples. Key issues here involve borders and rules. The first ancient states were city-states or empires. States establish clear boundaries within which their taxes and jurisdiction operate, ruled through centralised and military-backed power and integrated economies.
Until the spread of industrialisation and the rise of rapid communications between 1800 and 2000, two societies existed side by side, worldwide – one was growing and the other retreating.
One was driven by trade, money, law, religious and military power, centralised around towns and transport. The other was a village-based, self-sufficient or feudal peasant culture outside the money economy, ruled largely by elders or feudal lords. Peasants could get on with their lives if they paid their tithes, obeyed their lords and provided working or fighting men when required.
In the last 200 years improved communications have brought centralised systems and modernisation to the furthest-flung areas – an incorporation process which, today, pretty much encompasses the world. With this, Western-style statecraft, law and economics spread too, to become a global system, which now is becoming modified to suit the preferences of newer, rising global powers and regional cultures.
Nation-building, a term used when intervening in 'failed' states, is a misnomer. It builds state institutions more than it helps nation-peoples' welfare. Democracy is flagged as a cure-all to political power issues, but its frequent result when transplanted to other countries is dictatorship, business hegemony or political fudges.
Democracies and people's republics have seen a distancing between people and the state. Corporations, institutions and transnational organisations nowadays act along with governments to make an over-arching power system in which people take second place to the interests of the system.
This question of who decides sits prominently on the unwritten agenda of the 21st Century.
States were first ruled by monarchs, lords and magnates. Loyalty was imposed by the sword or by threat. By the late 1700s, reaction against authoritarian power-abuses led to ideas like 'the will of the people', 'the social contract' and 'human rights'.
With them, patriotism became more important as a form of social control. While the 20th Century brought freedoms, education and social benefits, pressures to conform and collude also increased, using carrots more than sticks – discipline is now more psychologically internalised and subtly applied.
An emotional and humane revival is today taking place underneath, in the hearts and minds of millions of people, transcending national boundaries. It surfaces whenever a humanitarian crisis or a potently symbolic set of events breaks out. Compassion and empathy are growing, helped by education, travel, media coverage – and a surreptitious shift of heart over time in the public psyche.
Mass-produced 20th Century conformist and nationalist values are being subtly undermined by a contrary sensitivity and empathy for suffering minorities. Women and their growing social-political influence affect this. This undercurrent of re-humanisation points to something quite tribal – though it is unclear whether this means our tribe or the human tribe. Faced with a now eight billion strong global family, we find ourselves caught in a semi-conscious tugging of the heart between deeper psycho-emotional signals and 'the official line' - what we feel we ought to subscribe to, in order to succeed in the socio-economic systems we live in.
As globalisation proceeds, nationalism and tribalism tend to grow in proportion and response to it. Everyone, no matter how cosmopolitan or well-travelled, still needs to go home and shut the door, to be in 'safe space' and together with friends - people we know and trust.
These intimacy needs are genuine, yet these homely instincts provide little justification for narrow nationalism, xenophobia or dogged ignoring of others and their needs, and obstruction of global-scale imperatives.
Tribes have their 'ring of power' – bonds of solidarity in which common needs, shared values and the well-being of the clan override individual differences.
When space became scarce or the 'ring of power' broke as a result of tragedy, invasion or disintegration, painful precedents and social devastation ensued. In Mesopotamia or north India this breakdown happened 3-4,000 years ago, but elsewhere it has occurred more recently, even just in recent decades.