Re-Published with permission from Brownstone Institute
When I entered the field of nationalism studies 35 years ago, it was characterized by a clear tilt toward two important ideological postures.
The first, a product of the rise of Marxist historiography in Western universities in the first three to four decades following the Second World War, was the belief that insurgent nationalist movements are, much more often than not, set in motion by mobilizations of the common people.
The second, product of the early 20th century invention of the discipline of political scienceâ€”a project essentially designed to provide a rational-sounding and elite-friendly apologetics for the brute exercise of domestic and imperial powerâ€” was that the best way to understand the rise of such movements was to focus primarily on, what else?, the lives and actions of those who had spent their lives immersed in the world of elections, political parties and other â€œofficialâ€ means of marshaling social power.
As luck would have it, however, this paradigm was in the process of being turned on its head as I got into the game, thanks in large part to the publication in 1983 of a remarkable book by the Cornell historian and specialist in east Asian cultures, Benedict Anderson. In his Imagined Communities, Anderson traces the development of the modern idea of the nation from its inception in the early 16th century up until the latter half of the 1900s.
Reading it, two things become crystal clear. The first is that the idea of creating new national collectives always manifests itself first in the minds of an often quite small lettered elite that imagines what the new entity will be like and that, in the hope of rendering it real, sets out to create and distribute its guiding myths.
The second, which flows axiomatically from the first, is that politics, understood in the way we now typically conceive of it, is almost always a distant trailing edge of these robust and quite consciously undertaken programs of new cultural production.
In the early 1990s the brilliant Israel scholar Itamar Even-Zohar seconded Andersonâ€™s emphasis on role of elites and what he calls their acts of â€œculture-planningâ€ in the creation and maintenance of nations, and indeed, all other insurgent movements of social identity.
Using his mastery of 15 languages and the access it gives him to the archives of many distinct national and/or social movements through time he sought to identify the tropes, cultural models and institutional practices that are common to the construction of virtually all such social projects, techniques whose central aim is always that of generating what he calls a state of â€œpronenessâ€ among the general population.
â€œCulture provides cohesion to both a factual or a potential collective entity. This is achieved by creating a disposition of allegiance among those who adhere to the repertoire [of cultural goods]. At the same time, this acquired cohesion generates a validated disposition of distinction, i.e., a state of separateness from other entities. What is generally meant by `cohesionâ€™ is a state where a widely spread sense of solidarity, or togetherness, exists among a group of people, which consequently does not require acts enforced by sheer physical power. The basic, key concept to such cohesion is readiness, or proneness. Readiness (proneness) is a mental disposition which propels people to act in many ways which otherwise may be contrary to their â€˜natural inclinationsâ€™. For example, going to war ready to be killed in fighting against some other group would be the ultimate case, amply repeated throughout human history.â€
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Thomas Harrington, Senior Scholar at the Brownstone Institute, is an essayist and Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies at Trinity College in Hartford (USA) where he taught for 24 years. He specializes in Iberian movements of national identity Contemporary Catalan culture. His writings are at Thomassharrington.com.
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--By Thomas Harrington August 23, 2022
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