The death of custom and the rise of nationalism in the post-colonial state

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

Related Post Roulette

16 Responses

  1. I wonder if custom is just a function of stability. We’re fighting the Iraq and Afghan wars now because of destabilizations during the Cold War, which itself was due to social upheavals in response to new industrial technologies which in turn were brought about by the intellectual refinement of the scientific method, and so on.

    If you look at Japan and traditional Japanese customs, almost all had their genesis in the Edo Period, when rule was consolidated in the Tokugawa Shogunate and the country was closed to all foreign influence but a small group of Dutch traders.Report

  2. I am thinking about your theory on the role of custom, though I am not sure I can 100% agree, it is an interesting attempt to explain some of the contemporary issues. I would say that the spark bringing any kind of nationalist emotions to life is the feeling of oppression. As soon as people feel being oppressed in any way, instead of giving up parts of their identity, they tend to develop it ending up even stronger and more persistent.Report

  3. Kyle Cupp says:

    There’s something to this. People (and other organisms) fight tooth and nail to preserve their identity. When expressions of that identity, such as customs and traditions, become disrupted or attacked, other often more tightly-woven expressions, such as nationalism, take their place.

    Nationalism may be a modern response in so far as the nation-state is a modern construct, but the basis phenomenon seems as timeless as they come. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?Report

  4. I would suggest that the kind of nationalism you are talking about would probably more accurately be described as regionalism in much of the world prior to the end of WWI. It’s not that people weren’t passionate enough to go to war about where they lived, it was just on a smaller scale.

    As for Europe, as a student primarily of American history I gave up trying to understand the changing national boundaries of Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries some time ago. As an example, I have some ancestors who migrated to the U.S. from present day Baden, Germany in the 1850s. This is what Wikipedia has to say about Baden:

    “It came into existence in the 12th century as the Margraviate of Baden and subsequently split into different lines, which were unified in 1771. It became the much-enlarged Grand Duchy of Baden through the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1803–06 and remained a sovereign country until it joined the German Empire in 1871, remaining a Grand Duchy until 1918 when it became part of the Weimar Republic as the Republic of Baden. Baden was bounded to the north by the Kingdom of Bavaria and the Grand Duchy of Hessen-Darmstadt; to the west and practically throughout its whole length by the River Rhine, which separated it from the Bavarian Rhenish Palatinate and Alsace in modern France; to the south by Switzerland, and to the east by the Kingdom of Württemberg, the Principality of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen and partly by Bavaria.”

    With so many tiny nations and borders changing almost every decade it would have been hard for any of them to really devlop the kind of insane nationalism that we saw in WWII.Report

  5. Rufus F. says:

    In Europe, nationalism is sort of invented by the Napoleonic wars. There are a lot of newly-minted national heros who come together to fight the French invaders. It’s sort of interesting because it’s both in opposition to the French and also adopting a lot of the ideas of the French Revolution that the invading army brought with them! It’s maybe a good warning about invading other countries militarily with a vague notion of brining them political liberty. It’s not long after those wars (1820s) that the national ideas catch on in the Ottoman Empire, beginning with Greece. Admittedly, people who have been oppressed, in order to make the case that they’re so unique that they need their own nation have to invent a lot of traditions along the way and create a sort of ‘continuity’ with the past. Benedict Anderson called these “imagined communities” and I think it’s a combination of imagination and actual historical research.Report

    • Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

      In Europe, nationalism is sort of invented by the Napoleonic wars.
      Depends on where you are in Europe. You’ll find pretty strong nationalism in Eastern Europe in the 16th century, at least (I suspect it goes back further). I know this in particular of Poland, Lithuania, the Don region, and other parts of western Russia and Ukraine.

      Nationalism is less a product of the loss of custom, I think, than it is the product of perceived threat, be it internal or external. One sort of internal threat is a loss of custom, so it’s not that your hypothesis is wrong, it’s just only one part of the story. I’m not sure it really explains India and Pakistan (there is a whole hell of a lot going on there), but it probably has something to do with a lot of examples of radical nationalism in the last century or so, including Germany in the late 19th century and the 1930s.Report

      • Rufus F. in reply to Chris says:

        “Depends on where you are in Europe. You’ll find pretty strong nationalism in Eastern Europe in the 16th century, at least (I suspect it goes back further).”

        Ah, this is true- I too often use “Europe” to mean the Western tip of the continent.

        “Nationalism is less a product of the loss of custom, I think, than it is the product of perceived threat, be it internal or external. One sort of internal threat is a loss of custom, so it’s not that your hypothesis is wrong, it’s just only one part of the story.”

        I think you mean this for Erik because your first sentence there is how I understand nationalism too- it’s often a way to rally the troops against a threatening outsider- real or percieved. So I think you’re right about it being less about the loss of custom than the threat.Report

        • Rufus F. in reply to Rufus F. says:

          And actually an interesting (maybe a bit unfair) earlier example of this is the attempt to define what it meant to be a Spaniard (i.e. it means you’re Catholic) after the Reconquista. Could we perhaps see the Spanish Inquisition as a very intense form of nationalism after a long interruption of the religious/cultural customs of that territory by military conquest?Report

        • Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Ah yes, I did mean that second part for Erik. Sorry ’bout that.Report

        • Chris in reply to Rufus F. says:

          Also, the Spanish Inquisition is a good example, sort of like 1930s Germany, of how nationalism is equally a product of the need for a unified culture in order to maintain authoritarian, and especially autocratic control. You have to have everyone on the same page, and one way to do that is to get the people who are already roughly on your page to be even more on your page by pitting them against a perceived (often created, even) threatening outgroup. This has the dual benefits for the authoritarian ruler hat at the same time you get a bunch of people to be more fervent supporters of your “home-grown” rule, you get rid of the people who are less likely to support it. It also seems to help if you have some Jews around to paint as the threatening outgroup, as the Spain and Germany show.Report

  6. jivatman says:

    My view of pride in nationalism, only in sense of identification with one’s country and culture, is that it is neither good nor evil, but neutral. Perhaps the best word is “Innocent”.

    It is, shall we say, natural, perhaps genetic, that one identify with their tribe or pack.

    As we evolved from earlier primates, we retained this and many other characteristics including: attraction between the sexes, the raising and caring for children, etc. All of these things have as their goal the success of the tribe or pack, for when the pack is weakened, the individual is weakened as well

    The most basic thing that humans gained as we evolved, whether or not it developed gradually or not, is a true self-consciousness, the knowledge that our feelings, emotions, identity are our own, the ability to self-reflect, etc.

    It is here, of course, that good and evil develop.

    The good is he who then says to himself, others are just like me, having their own feelings, emotions, etc. Thus, I should treat them like myself. I should understand values as being universal to all of humanity.

    The evil is he who says, my thoughts, feelings, etc, are my own only, totally subjective and thus the only reality. Thus it is only logical I pursue the utmost control and power over my reality, and other people, as possible. Nietzsche very well describes this as the “Will to Power”.

    I feel that a country cannot stay in the innocent nationalism stage forever, as it has a limit to the amount of, shall we say, development that it can be brought to. At some point it’s values either become universal, it abides by them to a fair extent and ceases to act hypocritically, or it begins to have acted so long, and so far hypocritical to it’s own values, that it is no longer necessary to carry on the charade, and it abandons them in favor of conditional values, such as the belief that one’s culture or race is simply superior and has the right to dominate others. Other groups, for whatever reason, are simply not the same as oneself and have a right to be dominated (they are sub-human, whatever).

    Nazism is of course a good example of this, I believe they were so successful because they ceased to be hypocritical in their pursuit of a pure selfishness, of the will-to-power, and directly adopted many of it’s concepts. Nietzsche noted that the logical conclusion of the will-to-power was dominance hierarchies in seen in some places in nature.

    They did so with the idea of Führerprinzip, developed from social Darwinism. In essence the idea was that ultimately, not only the military, but also the government, and of course, all of society, would be a dominance hierarchy.

    And of course, those at the top would do the utmost to pursue their will-to-power to impose as much of their will society, to the purest and most complete extent possible. Hence another Nazi concept, Gleichschaltung, or “making the same” where exactly that is forced.

    The communist’s problem is that their plan was too hypocritical. They attempted to keep up the charade of universal values, and of their version of individual freedom, while doing the opposite

    Furthermore, it is probably the case that too much destruction was wrought in the immediate and wholesale destruction of all civil society. The Nazis, on the other hand, did not destroy civil society but rather forced it, such as trade unions, business leaders, ect. into the dominance hierarchy , that is, they had to abide by their superiors. This is why the German economy almost miraculously after WWII but Eastern Europe are still developing countries, civil society wasn’t destroyed in Germany, only dominated.

    Furthermore, you’ll note that while communism posited the uselessness of the past and culture, Nazism pursued aggrandized and glorified their past, it’s symbols, etc, to the greatest extent possible. Again, pride in one’s country began in evolution, and is in and of itself innocent, but it, and all other holdovers from evolution, can be used for either good or evil.

    Now, let me note that just because I’ve examine the philosophy or path, of shall we say, evil, self, or whatnot, does not mean I support it. I’m just developing it in contrast to what I support.

    In fact, I think it is part of the nature of the other path, that one does not, and it is not necessary to, pursue one’s vision in a political, or other forceful means.

    Let’s go back to the newly self-conscious human. Let’s say he decides that others are just like him and should thus be treated just like him. They have their own ideas, thoughts, feelings, etc.

    They have their own free will.

    One of the more basic aspects of identifying others as self… is to allow them their own free will.

    Thus, people may decide that they want to create a society based on individual freedom.
    They lay out certain principles and rights in various documents, but are clear that a legalism will not suffice, due to the imprecision of human language, any such thing can easily be perverted.

    That it is the responsibility of individuals of society, of civil society, institutions of cooperation outside the force of law, traditions outside the force of law, morality, all and any pursuits which do not involved coercion, deception, or force, which provide the bulwark against tyranny.

    In essence, I believe the vision of modern libertarians is a correct one, that if we were able to perfectly enforce contracts against force and fraud, that would make for a free society.

    The problem is that the selfishly ambitious are generally more clever than the good and thus letter of law alone can simply never be perfect enough to prevent tyranny. Look at the establishment of the Federal Reserve, and it’s selling to a skeptical public, to see a most excellent case study. (In newspaper articles they say something like: It uses new, scientific techniques, that, though too complex to explain, will bring about a golden age of prosperity)

    Furthermore, there’s nothing in the bill of rights or constitution about assassination, deception, espionage, etc. These ancient, nearly every monarchy since the beginning of time did all of this. Still, it was felt, as the age of enlightenment was at it’s apex, that we had grown beyond them and it would be an insult to the intelligence of the American people to prevent them with a document.

    Alas, they would return. It took a very long time, 1947 of course, before the U.S. had a C.I.A. It was sold to us, of course, saying that times have changed and we needed one. Of course, as I said, such deception is as old as history itself, but people have short memories, 1776 may seem ancient to may.

    More recently, even the state department, that supposedly purely diplomatic institution whose goal is peace and prosperity, have been enlisted as spies against the U.N. and others. But we blink not.

    Again, evil is clever and vigilant and I do not think good can outdo evil in cleverness or vigilance

    It’s force is through the fact that the effectiveness of cooperation is far more efficient than that of coercion.

    The U.S. internationally has become a sort of pariah. Brazil, China, India, and Russia simply do not want things to continue as they have, financial dominance through the financial system, espionage, military imperialism, etc.

    The problem with evil is that if it does not continue to grow by enlisting others to join it, it will eventually fail because it has no friends except those under it’s thumb.

    And the BRIC countries are growing quickly while the U.S. is not. They have little in common but trade a great deal among themselves because trade is mutually beneficial. China and Russia have abandoned the dollar in bilateral trade, Latin American countries are contemplating something similar.

    You see, for international peace through good, it is not necessary, as communism or others say, the entire world to be under total communism or any other single system.

    It is only necessary for a few of the more powerful countries to stop starting aggressive wars or deceiving others. That is to follow the most basic libertarian principle of “do no intentional harm”.

    When they cease to harm, cooperation naturally flowers abundantly, the “spontaneous order” spoken of by free market economists.Report