Saturday 22 September 2018

Imagined Communities

In Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Benedict Anderson [1] writes:

“[I]n themselves, market-zones, ‘natural’-geographic or politico-administrative do not create attachments. Who will willingly die for… the EEC?”

When first published 1983, this, about the EEC (European Economic Community), was a rhetorical question, but replace EEC by EU (European Union) today and the question might be taken at face value. Certainly many people in the UK, myself included, felt an acute and painful sense of loss on the morning after the Brexit referendum, when we learnt that we were to leave the EU.
Anderson defines a nation as

 “An imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign”.

While nationalism is usually founded on the perception of an identity traced back through history, in reality the very concept of a nation is relatively recent. As late as 1914, Anderson argues, the majority of the world political systems were dynastic states, although by then many were seeking a national cachet for a renewed legitimacy. The community of a dynasty, however, is neither inherently geographic not racial, and the same can be said of the alternative major category of communities which preceded nations: religions.

The emotional backdrop of the leave/remain fault lines surely lies in the perceived nationhood of the EU. When the signposts at ports and airports point to the queue for ‘EU nationals’ it means, of course, citizens of one of the constituent nations of the EU, but might easily be read as suggesting an (imagined) EU nation. If the EU is a nation, then internal EU migration has no qualitative difference from, say, scousers or brummies moving to Milton Keynes. The idea of excluding, say, Romanians, from Milton Keynes is as offensive as excluding people born in Liverpool or Birmingham. 

Meanwhile, though, a common complaint of supporters of leave, especially older people, is that when they signed up to an economic community: they weren’t imagining a ‘sovereign’ community. And if we are making a nation of the EU by imagining a European community which is sovereign, we are also giving it Anderson’s second qualification by making it inherently limited. The imagined community is exclusive at the same time as inclusive. There have to be people outside if there are to be people inside.

If, furthermore, the nation is a recent construction, should we be so ready to jettison the former bases of community? Unless we sign up to a Whiggish teleological interpretation of history, we need to be ready to revisit the past and imagine alternative paths forward.  

1. Benedict Anderson Imagined Communities, Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Verso Revised Edition 2016

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