Friday, April 10, 2009

How Long Will 'Nations' Last?

Nations, the modern currency of our identity, were not there forever. That's an obvious fact, but how often we forget this in our political discourse? Like many other things, governments, printed money, passports and visas, we take nations for granted too. As if they were always there, and by extension, always will be there. However, truth is - nations are a fairly modern invention, and there is absolutely no guarantee that they will even last our lifetime.

The usual British apologists of imperial rule in India argue that there was no India prior to British rule. They reason the British rulers have conceptualized India as a nation, given it its modern geographic shape and unity. Indian nationalists, of course, take strong exception of this view and point towards the historical entity of Bharat, in its expansive geographic form. They cite the great Indian kings of Ashoka and Akbar who united the country and ruled it for a number of years. The argument goes on.

Pointless argument, though. We are talking about two different things here. The British are talking about a modern national identity. Arguably, some parts of this concept was borrowed from Greek nation states and Roman statutes. What happened in India is the formation of a new national concept through the interaction with the British. The key issue, of course, is that there was no Indian nation before the British because there was no concept of a nation three hundred years back, no at least in the sense that we know it today.

Men have always been a social, communal animal and had various forms of social identities throughout its history. First, there was the tribe, which hunted together. With the advent of agriculture and property rights in some societies, the concept of family emerged. However, the need for security, which required an 'economy of scale', kept those families within the tribe and eventually a kingdom, which is a tribe with a fixed landed property and an accepted leader, came into being. This lasted us for several generations, and the concept became incredibly refined over a period of time. Religion played its part too, and got intermixed with kingdoms, creating super-kingdoms. So did skillful rulers in Rome, Egypt and Babylon, who created empires by subjugating other kingdoms. So, we had various experiments on the form of community over last five thousand years which culminated in the concept of a nation about three hundred years back.

Nations borrow a lot from earlier kingdoms, as in terms of symbols, concept of property and rights [where national rights supersede the individual rights] and identity. It is an essentially political entity, a collective myth fostered in a body of literature, art, popular culture and symbols, which adds a new dimension to our identities and modern life. This was more of a creation of the industrial revolution and increased trade, when property rights became ever more important and some sort of collaboration between the producers, labourers, military and policy makers of a certain geographical area became critical to be able to compete. Interestingly, nations created their empires too - as in British, French, German empires of the 19th century and the American and Russian empires of the 20th - but these were essentially different from 'empires' of the kings of the earlier era.

The 'national' empires were essentially empires of the symbols and ideas. Subjugation by a foreign power was always humiliating, but the new national empires were aimed at integration of the subjugated power, through language, literature, symbols and beliefs, in the national system of the imperial power. The British were the proponents of this imperial system, and India was its great success story. The modern Indian nation, indeed, was based on a number of British ideas, and most of its codes, statutes and institutions were borrowed from the British.

Over a period of time, however, nation itself became too powerful concept to be kept under an imperial fold. New generation of Asians and Africans discovered their own histories, the pride and glory of Ashoka and Akbar in India's case, and tried to formulate independent national identities. A resurgent Japan was idolized, and helped to break down the racial stereotypes of ruler and ruling races. National conflicts intensified in Europe and finally the national empires crumbled under the weight of two world wars.

However, empires are hard to get rid of, and the national empires gave way to ideological empires of American and Soviet camps. This consist of independent national entities bundled together, by their need for self-preservation, into spheres of influence, with a mother nation lording over each camp. As we all know, this lasted for a while, till one of the super-nations imploded under the weight of over-extension. So, this was victory and the start of a unipolar, global empire. Or, was it?

The problem is that withering of the competing empires also made the concept of nations redundant, somewhat. The grouping of individuals, starting from family, were based on two primary reason - material belonging and the need for security. The human society, since then, have become unequal with every passing age, so that, at one end of the spectrum, there is so much material belonging that it stopped mattering, and at the other end, so little that it is best to give up for a promise of better afterlife. The need for security had also become superficial at the national level, as no nation in the world is powerful enough to provide any security against the predominant overlord. And, if people are hopeless that no national entity can protect themselves from the unjust dominion of the superlord, then the whole legitimacy of national formation is undermined.

This is why the legitimacy and existence of nations may be in question in the coming days. So far, nations exist in the middle class imagination and its legitimacy, in their craving for a secure and predictable life. A crisis of some kind, like a super-recession or another world war, will undermine the hope of such predictability and steal the rug from under the feet of nations. We already see the first signs of a rebellion against the nation - as evidenced in the terror movements of modern times which are not rooted into any nation - and I do not think such a movement was evidenced before in history. Besides, the military reaction to terrorism missed the point: we haven't invested enough in strengthening the national concept but rather went ahead to undermine it by acting unilaterally.

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