Benedict Anderson, author of the enormously influential book Imagined Communities, died last year in mid-December. His memory lives on as his ideas have shaped modern thinking about the origins and nature of nation-states. To those who have not reflected upon this, it comes as a shock to realise that nations are social constructs — they do not have a physical existence outside the minds of people. Nations come into being by an act of imagination. We collectively agree to consider ourselves as a community, and agree to consider certain geographical boundaries as our collective property. Our social consensus, and the recognition of this consensus by broader communities, creates nations.
Orthodox and naive thinking regards nations as primordial constructs, which have existed since time immemorial. Anderson contested this idea, and argued that the nation-state is a distinctly new creation of modernity. In older times, nations were founded on the basis of the divine right to rule of monarchs, and did not create a sense of national community. Rejection of traditional concepts of nationhood required their replacement with an alternative basis for creating nations.
Unlike others who trace the origins of the modern nation-state to Europe, Anderson argues that modern nations were born in the Americas, with US, Brazil and other liberated Spanish colonies being the first to develop a national consciousness. These templates gradually took hold in Europe after the French Revolution shattered older forms of nationhood. Later they were transported to Asia and Africa by the process of colonisation. This narrative assigns a central role to the development of a national consciousness in the US, as the first among the newly-born modern nations which emerged in the period 1776 to 1838. The American revolution created the United States — a noun used with a plural verb at the time — which lacked all three of the factors required for an ideal commonwealth: one king, one language, one church. The leaders of the revolution worried about how such a heterogeneous body of people could coalesce into a single nation. At the time, a dozen or more denominations and sects of Christianity warred against each other, most claiming for their religious doctrines an exclusive orthodoxy. Political diversity reigned in the form of 13 states, which jealously guarded their rights against those of the loose federation united solely by their common enemy, England.
Anderson coined the term print-capitalism as a name for the processes that he saw as central to the creation of a national identity, essential to the survival of a nation. The invention of the printing press created the possibility of cheap production of books, pamphlets and newspapers. Capitalism exploited the profit opportunities created by the opportunity of mass sales of reading materials to the public at large. Exclusive languages of the elite and intellectuals (like Latin and Greek) were marginalised by the spread of popular media, and vernacular languages gained prestige and power. This also created the possibility of participatory democracy, since the voices of the people could be heard in the popular media. The revolutionary vernacularising thrust of the print media created common narratives, and the possibility of imagining a community where no real community was possible. Modern nations were created by this powerful act of imagination.
Anderson’s ideas have dramatic implications and create powerful possibilities for the future. Since community is created by an act of imagination, tremendous responsibility is placed on the shoulders of the media. Portrayals of harmony, and projection of stories of community and participation can create these important qualities. The negative approach of portraying and emphasising conflict and ethnic tensions actually dissolves national bonds of unity. Promotion of vernacular language is essential to creating a participatory democracy as it gives a voice to the people.
Finally, along with well-known strengths, the failings of the nation-state concept have been amply demonstrated by the nearly continuous wars and conflicts that have resulted from it. Today, a powerful act of imagination is required to create a broader community of humanity as whole, so as to create the peace and harmony that is desperately needed. By creating a global community, perhaps the modern media created by the internet can play an important role in forging the future.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2016.