By Ronald Logan
Humans organize themselves in social aggregates to meet their collective needs and express their collective potentials. These social units have evolved in size and nature over the course of human existence, going from bands, to tribes, to chiefdoms, to city-states, to nations and empires.
Modern political theory has given special importance to the role of nations. “Nationalism has been the idée force in the political, cultural, and economic life of Western Europe and the Western hemisphere since the late eighteenth century.” [Dictionary of the History of Ideas: s.v. “Nationalism”]
Seminal development of the philosophical conception of nation was undertaken by Johann Herder during the Enlightenment Era. Herder replaced the traditional concept of a political state with that of the folk-nation, a collective entity that organically emerges and gives expression to a national spirit or volksgeist.
For Herder, then, a common culture, rather than political boundaries, defines a people. The contemporary conception of nation retains the substance of Herder’s view, nations being viewed as a form of self-defined cultural and social community in which members of the nation share a common identity.
So a nation is not the same as a country or a nation-state. While a country connotes a geographical space, a nation may be without a clearly defined homeland. For example, peoples who have experienced a diaspora, such as the Palestinians, are not settled in a homeland, yet remain a nation. A state possesses clear political sovereignty over a geographical space. Many nations, by contrast, though having a homeland, are without sovereignty. Nations without sovereignty include the Tibetans, Kurds, Scots, Basques, and tribal nations of Africa and the Americas.
A state that is the homeland of a particular nation is called a nation-state. Most modern states are nation-states. However, some states contain within them more than one nation. Great Britain is comprised of four recognized home nations. China has several internal nations, most notably the Tibetans. Iraq contains the Kurd, Sunni and Shia nations. In 2006, the Canadian government officially recognized “that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada.” And the term first nations has been used to identify groups that share an aboriginal culture and seek official recognition or autonomy.
What Defines National Identity?
Though the idea that all humans are affiliated with national groupings has been prevalent since the Enlightenment, there has not been agreement on what are the factors that that create a national identity. (National identity refers both to the distinguishing features of the group and to the individual’s sense of belonging to it.) Among the factors most commonly identified as giving rise to a national identity are:
- common descent or ancestry (ie, ethnicity)
- common language
- common culture
- common religion
Note that the lack of one or more of these factors does not prevent the creation of a national identity. Switzerland has four national languages. The United States is so multi-ethnic that the mythic sense of “melting pot” is part of its national identity. India possesses greater cultural diversity than does the whole of Europe. And the Indonesian nation is comprised of sizeable populations of Muslims, Hindus and Christians.
Note also that these national identity forming factors may give rise to more than one nation occupying the same geographical space, as is the effect of religion in North Ireland, or tribal ethnicity in Kenya, or language in Spain.
What is more important than the particular factor or factors in creating national identity is that they be shared characteristics, and that they give individuals in the society a sense of belonging to the national group.
Because national identity is ultimately a subjective feeling that creates a shared sense of belonging, Indian philosopher Prabhat Ranjan Sarkar has argued that nations are created not by particular common factors, but by the sentiments they evoke:
In reality a kind of sentiment created either directly or indirectly on the basis of one or more factors — like language, religion, etc. — plays a vital role in forming a nation. The factors themselves are quite unimportant. It is sentiment and nothing else that creates a nation. [To the Patriots, 1960]
India as a Case Study
Sarkar uses the history of India as a rich case study in the way that national identity arises and dissolves, and he draws from his study of Indian national identity important observations about national unity. In particular, he uses Indian history to show that the lack of a strong national identity may leave a people without the cohesion to resist invasion, colonization, or balkanization. The historical cycles of nation formation and dissipation in India that Sarkar describes to illustrate this thesis are worth reviewing for the insights they offer on the nation-building challenges confronting the world today.
1. Aryan / Non-Aryan
The migration of aggressive Aryan people into India, originating probably from the East Caspian Sea region, brought the subjugation of the less aggressive non-Aryans of North India, who had been without a unified social order or national identity.
The Aryans formed a national identity around their Vedic culture and language, and around their Caucasian ethnicity. The subjugated indigenous Indians, in turn, developed their own collective identity based on their subjugated non-Aryan status.
Thus, for some time, North India was divided into two internal nations: the Aryans and the non-Aryans. But over time, there came to be linguistic, cultural and ethnic blending, so that the basis for the two national identities eventually died out. When this occurred, India was again without a strong sense of national unity; it again became nationless.
2. Buddhist / Non-Buddhist
Although Buddhism began around 500 BCE, its presence in India did not become prominent until it came under the sponsorship of Emperor Ashoka in the 3rd Century BCE. Prior to this time, the Buddhists possessed a strong sense of identity and unity, becoming an internal Buddhist nation, while the non-Buddhists of the early Buddhist era were disunited and without national sentiment.
However, after the Buddhists gained the patronage of Ashoka’s regime and began to exercise their power, an anti-Buddhist sentiment developed. This became the basis for a non-Buddhist or Brahminical nation. So, once again, India was comprised of two internal nations.
Several factors — including the revitalization of Brahminical philosophy by Shankaracharya — eventually brought about the downfall of Buddhism in India and the end of the Buddhist national identity. This was underway by about the 9th-10th Century CE. With the downfall of Buddhism, the Brahminical national identity also dissipated, leaving India once again nationless.
3. Muslims / Hindus
Although Islam had become an expansionist force, it was unable to conquer India during the period when India possessed internal cohesion around the Buddhist and Brahminical national sentiments. But after these sentiments dissipated, India became weakened, and was then conquered by the Moguls, who established a dynastic empire in India.
The Moguls brought their national identity, based around their Turkish culture and ethnicity, their Persian language, and their Islamic religion. They also possessed an identity as conquerors, and established a rule that was oppressive to the non-Muslims. The oppression of the non-Muslims united the indigenous population around an anti-Muslim sentiment and around sentimental identification with their Hindu religion and Sanskrit derived languages. India again came to have two internal nations: Muslim and Hindu.
As in the Aryan/non-Aryan period, cultural, linguistic and interethnic blending eventually developed between the Muslims and Hindus. The national sentiment of the Muslims weakened, and with its dissipation the Muslim and Hindu nations died (though the Mogul political administration remained in place). Once again, India was nationless. Eventually, India began to split up into a number of principalities.
4. British / Indian
Beginning in the 18th Century, with India weakened from lack of a strong national identity, the British were easily able to conquer and colonize it. Unlike past conquests of India, not just northern India was conquered, but the whole of the sub-continent.
The British were not an invading people, like the Aryans and Moguls, but colonizers who did not settle in India. So they did not constitute an internal nation. But their colonial rule did cause the whole of India to become united on the basis of an anti-British sentiment. This national identity gained strength from a renewal of pride in India’s indigenous spirituality — promoted by Swami Vivekananda in particular — and a trans-India unity was fostered through the use of the English language as a lingua franca. For the first time in India’s history, a national identity emerged that embraced the whole of India.
With the growth of Indian nationalism, a long, protracted struggle for independence took hold. With its success in 1949 the British were expelled and independence obtained.
5. India / Pakistan
P.R. Sarkar astutely observed that, because the Indian independence movement embraced the goal of attaining political independence (as opposed to economic independence), the Muslim population of India came to feel that, with independence, they would constitute a political minority, subject to the rule of the Hindu majority.
Out of this fear, an Islamic national identity developed, and with it the demand for a separate Muslim state. Hindu independence leaders eventually capitulated to this demand, and the spacially divided nation-state of Pakistan was created, comprised of East and West Pakistan.
Because the Hindu population was a strong majority within India, for the most part they did not develop a sentiment around their religious identity. However, in two border regions — Bengal and Punjab — where the Hindu population would have become subjugated minorities within Pakistan, this sentiment did develop. So, when the partition of India occurred, Bengal and the Punjab were also partitioned.
6. Pakistan / Bangladesh
With the formation of the Muslim state of Pakistan, anti-Hindu sentiment among the Muslims dissipated as a unifying force, and the cultural, linguistic and ethnic differences between the peoples of East and West Pakistan came to the fore. The importance given to these differences was exacerbated by the domination of East Pakistan by West Pakistan.
Eventually a strong anti-West Pakistan national sentiment emerged among the people of East Pakistan, who already possessed a strong identity around their common Bengali culture, and an independence struggle erupted. The success of this struggle resulted in the political break-up of East and West Pakistan in 1972 and the independence of Bangladesh.
Pakistan is not ethnically homogenous, as is Bangladesh, being comprised of several distinct ethnic groups: the Baluchi, Sindhi, Punjabi, Muhajirs and Pathan. Pakistan now lacks a strong sentiment for a cohesive national identity, and so ethnic based sentiments have become more prominent. Ethnic insurgencies are disrupting the nation in both Baluchistan and Waziristan (the Northwest Frontier Province tribal area bordering Afghanistan that has strong pro-Taliban sentiment).
7. Post-independence India
In its post-independence era, India, much like Pakistan, failed to form a strong national identity. Fissiparous tendencies developed within India — a country of huge diversity. These fissiparous tendencies formed around religious, ethnic, regional, and linguistic sentiments.
Early in the post-independence era, the nation’s language policy exacerbated divisiveness. During British rule, English became a lingua franca for the sub-continent, which (as was noted above) facilitated the emergence of an Indian national identity. But post-independence national policy diminished the role of English and promoted use of regional languages. More problematically, language became the sole factor for demarcating state boundaries. These policies inflamed language sentiment, and language competition, at the expense of nation building.
The most conspicuous of India’s internal conflicts have involved religion sentiment. The Sikh rebellion in the Punjab in 1972 was a particularly dramatic example of tensions created around religious sentiment. More significant has been the conflict between Muslims and Hindus in Kashmir, a conflict which has led India and Pakistan to war on two occasions, and which almost erupted in a third war three years ago. (Had international pressure on India and Pakistan not contained this powder keg, the use of nuclear weapons, or the involvement of China, could have come into play.)
The corrosive impact of religious sentiment on Indian national identity has also been fueled by a strong Hindu fundamentalist movement. Hindu fundamentalism has fostered a Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva. Several times in recent years, the Hindutva movement has fomented bloody inter-religious strife, most notably between Hindu and Muslim communities in the state of Gujarat.
Can Hindutva provide India a viable sentiment for building a strong national identity and national unity, as is proclaimed by its advocates? The mass slaughter in Gujarat in 2002 indicates that Hindutva is again dividing India into two internal nations — this time one based on the sentiment of Hindu fundamentalism, and one formed on an anti-fundamentalism sentiment.
Developing a Viable National Sentiment
India is not alone in struggling to find a suitable sentiment for building national unity. Many post-colonial nation-states face similar difficulty.
In some cases, this has led to acute crises. Prominent examples in the world today are the situations in Kenya and Iraq. In both of these states, a unifying national sentiment has failed to develop to dissipate divisive ethnic or religious sentiments. In the case of Iraq, the Bush Administration holds faith (or disingenuously asserts) that the sentiments of freedom and democracy will provide the inspiration for nation building. Most informed observers, however, doubt that this will be viable.
In many areas of the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism is being advocated as a unifying sentiment. In Iran, fundamentalism became a powerful force in the formation of Iran’s Post-Shah Islamic state. But there now appears to be a weakening of the acceptance of this sentiment, requiring that the Islamic state be maintained more by the dictatorial political control of the Mullahs than by popular embracing of Islamic fundamentalism as the basis for Iranian national identity.
Afghanistan, under the rule of the Taliban, also attempted to create an Afghan nation on the basis of Islamic fundamentalism; and the Taliban also had to resort to repressive force to maintain Islamic rule.
For lack of a unifying national sentiment, Somalia has become a failed-state. A number of other African countries have the potential to become failed states — if they have not already — due to the divisiveness of internal tribal identities.
As was noted, the Enlightenment philosopher, Johann Herder, conceived that all humans are divided into national groupings having a national spirit, or volkgeist. But often, these national groupings do not coincide with modern nation-states, but exist within them, leading to discord and even to failed states.
Moreover, as the history of India demonstrates, the shared sentiment needed to form a national identity may not exist, leaving people without a sense of nationhood. Or, a national identity may form around sentiments not shared in common by the inhabitants of a place, giving rise to anti-sentiments and the creation of opposing internal nations.
While a strong national identity can serve to empower, sustain, protect, and inspire a people, developing a proper sentiment for that national identity has been a perennial challenge.
What Future for the American Nation?
Since attaining independence from England, the United States has experienced both success and challenge in the formation of a national identity. Core values, common cultural traits, and common national undertakings (such as World War II and the Cold War) have all vitalized America’s national spirit. But its national identity has also been frayed at times (eg, during the Indochina War). And, during the Civil War, America became a country with two internal nations: the Union and the Confederacy.
The destruction of the World Trade Center in 2001 produced a spike in national sentiment. The diverse American people felt an uncommon degree of unity. But unity rapidly dissipated, undermined by partisan politics, a war without sound cause, greed-driven wealth inequality, fundamentalist political agendas, subversion of constitutional principles, growing privatization of the commons, and erosion of the social safety net.
The growing division among Americans was evident in the intensely polarized sentiments during the 2008 Presidential election. Many felt this election was a pivotal moment in American history, that two paths to the future were sharply delineated.
In this milieu of polarization and uncertainty, Presidential candidate Barak Obama sensed the need for a revitalizing America’s national identity, and he projected a positive ideal to strengthen national identity.
Obama’s effort to rally the American people around the audacity of hope and the motto, “Yes, we can,” was a constructive initiative. But was it sufficient to build a national identity that can meet America’s present challenges?
Hope is necessary, but not sufficient. America’s problems mainly arise from an economic system that values short term profits over human needs and ecological vitality. So the American people require a common sentiment based on a new vision of development. Hope alone will not suffice.
At the root of the disempowerment of the American people is the corruption of democracy by powerful economic forces, with the collusion of neo-conservatives and, to a lesser extent, religious fundamentalists.
A wide spectrum of progressive forces seeks the return of democracy in America. In so doing, they seek independence from the growing tyranny of the meta-corporations. But this independence will not come through “regime change” or, more broadly, through struggle to revitalize political democracy.
P.R. Sarkar observed that the demand for political independence in India’s independence movement was a powerful factor leading, tragically, to the partition of India. He believed India would have been served better had its leaders followed the course of China’s revolutionaries and called for economic independence.
Just as India could not form a strong national identity on the basis of political independence, so America today cannot revitalize its national identity on the platform of strengthening political democracy.
America’s leaders, and its people, should embrace instead the call for economic democracy. Economic democracy, properly conceived, could rally and empower Americans around a unity of purpose appropriate to their circumstances. That is, it would create a common agenda to replace the tyranny of power and profits for the meta-corporations with the economic empowerment and enrichment of the mass.
What is economic democracy? In the expanded conception of this term given by PROUT, economic democracy has four objectives:
- The minimum requirements and basic amenities of life should be guaranteed to all.
- There should be ever-increasing purchasing power enjoyed by all.
- Economic decision-making power should be vested in the hands of local people, not outside economic or political interests, and should be made primarily on the basis of collective necessity, not profit for investors.
- Locally generated capital should not be drained from the local community.
The influence of huge corporations on the democratic system has become so burdensome that democracy is becoming a rubber stamp for the economic giants who increasingly control the interests and workings of the society. These economic giants are consolidating their rule worldwide. They now thrust to take power in every realm. Because all political power will be controlled by these giants, if someone attempts to take a democratic position and do something against corporate domination, they will be destroyed. Such will be their power, if they are allowed to have it.
What is the alternative that can save the American nation from this fate? It is economic democracy. If there is local economic control, if all can attain their basic requirements and enjoy increasing purchasing power, if capital remains to enrich the local communities, then democracy will continue as a healthy form of government and the national spirit will remain vital. Economic democracy can cure the undermining of the democratic process by multinational corporate interests.
People must be given an alternative. The call for economic democracy should be widely propagated. Multinational corporations will revile it, but the people will like it. They will rally in support, for it is an idea that will restore their dignity, their economic security, and the democratic ideals and freedoms they cherish.
Let economic democracy become the cry of the American patriots!
Ravi Logan is Executive Director of the Prout Institute (www.proutinstitute.org) and the author of PROUT: A Solutions Oriented Paradigm of Development.