"We have made Italy. Now we have to make Italians."
— Massimo d'Azeglio, 1861
When Italian statesman Massimo d'Azeglio spoke those words in 1861, Italy was in the late stages of what is commonly referred to as its "unification." The process didn't conclude until 1871, when the peninsula's disparate states were merged into their modern territorial form under the ideals of republicanism. Italian unification, however, was only a part of a broader political transformation — nationalism — that shook the world from the late 18th century onward. As the world heads in the direction of more nationalistic politics from Arkansas to Austria, now is a good time to take the long view on nationalism and try to project its future.
From the beginning, the concept of nationalism has been marked by a number of internal inconsistencies. For example, the term unification implies the existence of an "original" nation in the popular will. This pre-existing nation then simply has to be put back together as a single state, thus realizing the people's will. Why, then, would d'Azeglio assert that the country's revolutionaries needed to "make" Italians? This seeming contradiction lies at the heart of the riddle of nationalism. But to unravel it, we have to go back to its origins.
The Birth of the Nation
Though nationalism didn't burst onto the global stage until the French and American revolutions, its roots go back further in European history. According to the celebrated scholar Benedict Anderson, nationalism's genesis in Europe largely stemmed from the technological revolution of movable-type printing. While printing was actually invented in China, it had the greatest political impact in Europe. By creating a standardized means of propagating texts that once had to be memorized or painfully reproduced by hand, printing facilitated the birth of a common linguistic culture. It also gave rise to a small but influential class of literate citizens drawn from early modern Europe's burgeoning urban middle classes.
This greatly facilitated what Anderson has famously called an "imagined community" of people who did not know one another personally but yet felt bonded together as a single cultural community, the nation. The nation then sought its own state — the gold standard of nationalist striving. By struggling to create nation-states in place of monarchies, nationalism was seen by its advocates as a principle of liberation. Popular sovereignty replaced the divine right of kings as a means to legitimacy, and the concerns of even the most ordinary citizen now in principle had become a part of the state's responsibilities.
Given nationalism's linguistic origins, it is unsurprising that early European nationalists grounded their definition of it in language as well. Thus Johann Herder, an 18th-century German nationalist, spoke of language as the "vital medium" of the nation. French revolutionaries immediately instituted a program for the standardization of French, attempting to erase its linguistic diversity by stamping out the full-fledged languages within it, such as Basque and Breton. And Polish nationalists, some of the earliest in Europe, put particular emphasis on mass education in Polish, replacing the Latin that had preceded it.
Along with language, another critical aspect of nationalism was the claim of a well-defined territory. Whereas monarchies had routinely expanded or shrunk depending on their relative power, nations laid claim to the allegedly "natural" homes of their people. It's easy to see how this could — and often did — lead to overlapping territorial claims between neighboring nations. Though territorial disputes have been an enduring fact of international relations for millennia, nationalism imbued them with an irredentist zeal that had never been seen before.
Nations may be imagined communities, but they certainly are not imaginary. Today's international system, overwhelmingly composed of nation-states rather than kingdoms, empires, tribes, priesthoods or cities, is evidence of this irrefutable fact. Despite most nationalists' claims, however, it is tough to make the case that nations have been around since antiquity. Nations as cultural communities are a product of a technological revolution dating to the early modern era. Nations as political communities were subsequently created by radical thinkers and activists at the vanguard of nationalist movements, who had to convert the population to their cause. Though the cultural community provided the raw material, political nationhood was, in fact, willed into existence. That is what d'Azeglio meant when he spoke of "making" Italians.
Nationalism took a somewhat different path in the Americas. For the United States — a settler community of predominantly English migrants — nationalism was not about language but rather the struggle for a geographically distinct territory to perfect an English ideal that the English themselves were seen to have betrayed. In Haiti, nationalism meant an armed revolt for freedom from the extreme brutalities of slavery. And in Latin America, nation-states arose from criollo outrage at colonial rulers' discrimination and inspiration from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Because the Americas were multiracial societies from the beginning, race greatly complicated the national question in all three cases.
Nationalism continued its onward march through history, eventually arriving in Asia and Africa even as a particularly extreme phase of fascism swept through continental Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Like residents of the Americas had before them, Asians and Africans imagined themselves as nations under a republican ideal and overthrew European colonial domination (or in the case of Japan, monarchic feudalism). The project of cultural homogenization, inherent in nationalism, was also prosecuted to varying degrees of success — Japan being among the most successful and India among the least.
But nationalism in Asia also emerged in forms very different from those in Europe and the Americas. In enormously diverse India and Indonesia it additionally took on an internationalist claim of solidarity with the developing world. In Pakistan, it was inspired by an "imagined" political community of South Asian Muslims — among the first cases of a nation-state defined by a religious claim rather than one of language or race. And in China and Vietnam, nationalism was melded with another ideology that also traced its origins to Europe — Marxism-Leninism.
Liberation and Oppression
The idea of popular sovereignty — the most formal version of which is democracy — was a principle of liberation and a major improvement over the divine right of kings. Yet, by privileging some, nationalists inevitably excluded and often oppressed others.
Monarchs typically cared little for what cultural practices their subjects adopted as long as they genuflected to the sovereign. Istanbul, for instance, was far more culturally diverse during the Ottoman Empire than under the nationalist-Kemalist state that succeeded it. But the act of imagining a political community built in the name of the people raises questions of authenticity: Who are "the people"? Are they only those who conform to the cultural definition of the nation and inhabit its claimed territory? What, then, of diasporas that live elsewhere? Or of people who reside in the nation's territory but belong to a different culture?
These questions were tackled most successfully by the world's larger multiethnic nation-states. Chief among them was the United States, which by the 1960s had adopted the approach of an ethnically agnostic state where citizenship was the only thing that mattered — the model of "civic nationalism." Canada, the United Kingdom, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Brazil, post-apartheid South Africa and others have also forged their own versions of nationalism that do not feature ethnicity as their defining characteristic.
It isn't that nationalism hasn't faced challenges. Marxism, socialism, cosmopolitanism, liberalism and capitalism have all attempted to radically remake the global order in some form or another. But as each one strengthened, remarkably, it was co-opted into the national principle.
Still, the resounding success of nationalism isn't easy to explain. After all, its civic form is a much later development, rarely realized in full. Why haven't exclusionary tendencies, so prominent in nationalist doctrines, led to nationalism's demise and the triumph of alternative forms of political organization?
It isn't that nationalism hasn't faced challenges. Marxism, socialism, cosmopolitanism, liberalism and capitalism have all attempted to radically remake the global order in some form or another. But as each one strengthened, remarkably, it was co-opted into the national principle. In fact, each challenger was often the most successful when it was articulated as part of a nationalist framework. The one exception (and a partial one at that) may be the U.S.-led liberal capitalism — better known as globalization — that emerged in the wake of the Cold War. But it, too, failed to create the sort of "soft borders" world of free capital and labor movement that its biggest techno-enthusiasts envisioned in the 1990s. In fact, recent developments in the United States and Europe even indicate that globalization is in the process of being reversed in several important ways.
The most successful challenges to nationalism have not been other ideologies but nationalists themselves. From Czech activists resisting German rule to Bengali revolutionaries waging war against Pakistan, minority groups living in contiguous territories have been willed into political communities nearly as often as nation-states have sought to break free from larger empires. The steady multiplication of nation-states in their own image has been a persistent fact of life in the modern global order — one that has strengthened nationalism rather than weakening it.
A Waypoint or Final Destination?
Are we destined, then, to live in a world of robust nation-states? More than likely, yes. In fact, the continuous social churning generated by economic and technological modernization may only better position nationalism as a secular replacement for traditional values, giving meaning to the lives of those uprooted from old realities but not yet included in the new. But I propose three plausible challenges to nationalism over the next few decades.
The first would be an act of imagining a "people" that exists above the plane of nations. The clearest example of this is politicized religion. Political Sunni Islam, for instance, has already aided in the destruction of at least three nation-states: Syria, Iraq and Libya. It suffers from internal divisions, however, and is vehemently opposed by all great powers, calling into question its ability to serve as an alternative to the nation-state paradigm. Pan-Hinduism is another possibility. But almost all Hindus live in India. Thus the rise of pan-Hinduism, while greatly reconfiguring domestic Indian politics, would not fundamentally challenge the nation-state paradigm elsewhere. Other candidates — pan-Buddhism or a reconstituted idea of Judeo-Christendom — are theoretically possible but seem too far-fetched at this point.
The second challenge could come from the shared threat of a planet in crisis. As of now, global environmentalism is more of an activist movement with growing mainstream success than a defining principle of a new world order centered on the health of the planet. If the effects of climate change and the destruction of biodiversity are seen as existential threats, this could give rise to a political imperative to fundamentally reorganize the international order within this century.
The final challenge cannot be articulated so much as conjectured. And for that we have to return to where nationalism began: the printing revolution. In our own time, the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution — in which the cyber and physical worlds will become inseparable — promises to exceed the magnitude of the printing revolution. Could this world of hyper-connectivity generate entirely new and unforeseen principles of political organization?
Which brings us to the biggest unanswered question yet: Are nation-states simply a waypoint on the journey to an alternative global order, or will the remarkably resilient phenomenon of nationalism manage to co-opt its future challengers as well?