Benedict Anderson on Europe, Asia, nationalism and the state

“Before the late seventeenth century, when French intellectuals began to claim the superiority of their civilization, none of the European countries denied that the civilization of antiquity was superior to its own, and they competed against each other to learn more about it in order to be civilized. Whether in wartime or peacetime, no country could boast that it was the centre of civilization, a European version of ‘sinocentrism’ as it were, and throw its head back declaring it was no. 1. Innovation, invention, imitation and borrowing took place incessantly between different countries in the fields of culture (including the knowledge of antiquity), politics, global geography, economics, technology, war strategy and tactics, and so on.

Nothing like this existed in East Asia, nor even South Asia. In East Asia, China and Japan both set up geographical and cultural boundaries and often attempted to shut out the ‘barbaric’ outside world with drastic closed-door policies. The necessity of competition with other countries over politics, economics, technology and culture was only scarcely felt. Southeast Asia was probably the closest parallel to Europe. It was diverse in terms of culture, language, ethnicity and religion. Its diversity was further magnified by the historical lack of a region wide empire (which was associated with frequent political turmoil), and later by the colonial rule of various Western powers. It also resembled Europe in its openness to the outside world through trade.

Because Europe, after Rome, never experienced a single stable master, it remained an arena of conflict, cooperation, commerce and intellectual exchange between many medium-sized and small states, and became the logical place for the birth of linguistic/ethnic nationalism, typically directed from below against despotic dynastic regimes. Though European nationalism adopted key ideas from the Creole nationalism of the Americas, it was deeply affected by early-nineteenth-century Romanticism, which was foreign to its Creole predecessors. It had huge appeal for outstanding poets, novelists, dramatists, composers and painters. It was also quite aware of, and felt solidarity with (though not always, of course), other popular nationalisms as fellow movements for the emancipation of the people from despotic dynasties – a solidarity later expressed institutionally in the League of Nations, the United Nations, and many other forms.

After the world wars of the twentieth century, however, many young nationalisms typically got married to grey beard states. Today, nationalism has become a powerful tool of the state and the institutions attached to it: the military, the media, schools and universities, religious establishments, and so on. I emphasize tools because the basic logic of the state’s being remains that of raison d’état ensuring its own survival and power, especially over its own subjects. Hence contemporary nationalism is easily harnessed by repressive and conservative forces, which, unlike earlier anti-dynastic nationalisms, have little interest in cross-national solidarities. The consequences are visible in many countries. One has only to think of state sponsored myths about the national histories of China, Burma, both Koreas, Siam, Japan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, Indonesia, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Vietnam or Sri Lanka for Asian examples. The intended effect is an unexamined, hypersensitive provinciality and narrow-mindedness. The signs are usually the presence of taboos (don’t write about this!, don’t talk about that!) and the censorship to enforce them.”

Bonus: Philippe Aghion makes a related point

Then there’s the separate yet related question: why did the growth takeoff occur in Europe in 1820 and not somewhere else before? Why not in China for instance where you had so many inventions since the middle age? We believe that in these other societies you had vested interests, whether economic or political, that were scared that new inventions would threaten their power. So they sought to block them. That was less of an issue in places like Europe where competition between European countries made it more difficult for any single government to prevent innovation and progress, as Joel Mockyr has argued. 

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