Whyfore The Nation-State?

470px-2008_Europe_Political_Map_ENFor most of us, imagining a world without the nation-state is like a fish trying to imagine a world without water.  But I wanted to back up after reading about the revolutionary year of 1848 and think out-loud (well, I guess you can’t hear me) about the whole idea of the nation-state for a moment.

Three main questions pop to mind:  1) What makes a nation?  2) What purpose do they serve?  3) And are all the revolutions and acts of terrorism worth it?

What Makes A Nation?

#1.  Judging by history, GEOGRAPHY is very important in the forming of a nation, and in two ways:

1) Geographical Proximity:  Nations are almost always made of contiguous lands, often grouped together in such a way that no outside border is extraordinarily far from the center (in other words, countries are generally squarish).  Yet this has plenty of exceptions.  Chile springs to mind as a country that doesn’t fit the mold.  So, too, sprawling archipelagos like Indonesia.  The United States has outliers like Alaska and Hawaii (and sorta Puerto Rico).

But do these sprawling-type shapes really feel the cohesiveness of a nation?  Plenty of people in Hawaii and Puerto Rico, and not a few in Alaska, think they should break away from the United States, and plenty in the continental U.S. never quite in their hearts think of these other places as the REAL America.  And I don’t know about Chile, but I bet the northern part of the country feels a certain detachment from the southern part and vice versa.

Another possible exception to the Geographical Proximity requirement for a nation-state:  What about the domains of the English-speaking peoples?  Do Canada and Australia and the United Kingdom and other areas all form a sort of super-nation-state?  Doubtfully, but it’s worth considering.  These lands are as widely separated as is currently possible (until we have space-colonies).

2)  Geography could be important to the making of a nation-state in another way…  The Physical Geography of mountains, rivers, deserts, and seas often wind-up as the borders between countries.  This makes common sense for a couple of reasons:  a) natural defenses against “the Other,” and  b) these barriers provide isolation, and isolation facilitates cultural and genetic development along idiosyncratic lines– a sort of inbreeding, not only of what might become “racial” features, but also an inbreeding of thought and culture.  If one nation is closed-minded about the culture of another, geographical isolation provides ample excuse.

Geography gives every appearance of being the dominating factor in the making of a nation– for once a people are cut-off by barriers of landscape from others, then many of the other characteristics of a nation listed below will natural follow.

Also, we should be aware that with modern communication and travel technologies, Geography is less important today to the nation-state than it has been previously.

#2.  Besides Geography, it seems apparent that LANGUAGE is important in forming a nation.  Most nations are full of people who all speak fluently in the common language.  Interestingly, when you look at a map, you see that often this language is also different from the first-languages spoken by the countries surrounding them.  This leads one to think that perhaps the importance of Language to a nation-state goes beyond mere convenience– and that there is some drive in the citizens of that state to keep expanding until they have absorbed everyone contiguous with them who speaks their language.  In other words, it appears that Language is crucial to a people in defining their identity.

#3.  Judging by history again, it appears that a shared common RELIGION is important to nation-building.  Great wars have been fought between nations of different religions– I’m not saying that these wars are OVER religion, but that it sure seems coincidental that enemies often differ on their view of the divine, or at least on points of dogma.

We live in an interesting time as far as the Religion aspect of nationhood goes.  Perhaps for the first time in history, areas that consider themselves “nations” (in other words, consider themselves “as one people”) are allowing large numbers of people of different religious beliefs to live more or less as equals within their borders.  This is most definitely not a smooth interaction, and not always that welcoming of a situation for the minority religion– but then, historically speaking, we should not expect it to be so.  We can only wait and see what this bodes for the future of the nation-state.  Will sincere tolerance become the new norm?  Will shared religious beliefs no longer be vital to the creation and maintenance of a people?  Or, more dismally, are we setting-up future civil wars to come?

#4.  This is a bit of a catch-all criterion:  People in a nation often think of their fellow citizens as “people like me” and of people outside of their nation as “not like me.”  This is based on several factors:  1) physical appearance,  2) culture and dress,  3) blood and clan lines,  4) a feeling of shared history [particularly, often of a shared persecution or subjugation].  Shared mythologies and historical or pseudo-historical stories would come into play here, as also would shared celebrities (such as current Leaders or past Heroes); believing that we all know some of the same people can make a wide-spread community feel a bit more like a village.

I perhaps should divide #4 into a least two areas:  1) “like me” characteristics that are psychologically driven like culture and dress, and 2) those that are driven by the urge (perhaps primal or genetic) to secure the survival of our genes over the genes of others.

This “like me” characteristic of a nation is another area in which the modern nation-state is “pushing its boundaries” (if you’ll pardon the play on words).  It is more and more common for people in a nation to look and dress and act entirely different from each other.  Again… we can only wonder what this harbors for the future of the nation-state as a way of grouping (and thus, dividing) the world.

#5.  I could probably include Ideals in #4 above, but I feel it is so important –and possibly even more important for future nation-states– that I wanted to include it separately.  Also, I admit a bias here:  as an idealistic American, I like to think of our country as being founded and maintained predominately by a shared set of principles that we agree to live by (things such as Liberty, Democracy, Justice… you know the standard line).  I know this is not wholly true, but let me point this out:  if it is NOT these things that unite America, then we are rapidly running out of things that do.

Wow, this post is long enough.  Perhaps my next post I can write about the purposes served by the nation-state (if there are any), and discuss whether these advantages are worth the price people pay to found and maintain them.

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2 thoughts on “Whyfore The Nation-State?

  1. Interesting article! :) If I may add something, I think you have missed out something important in the impact of international politics and dynamics. There are many countries today, particularly in Africa, which group together peoples who have little in common culturally, religiously and even ethnically. This is undoubtedly the legacy of European colonialism, and the clumsy attempt to leave big, strong African states behind (with the dramatic consequences we know). If you’re interested in history, please visit and follow my recently created blog at http://publishistory.wordpress.com/ (I’ll follow you back!) It contains history articles on a variety of subjects written by myself and friends from university! :)

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