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. 

media notes #8: Benedict Anderson on newspapers

“In this perspective, the newspaper is merely an ‘extreme form’ of the book, a book sold on a colossal scale, but of ephemeral popularity. Might we say: one-day best-sellers? The obsolescence of the newspaper on the morrow of its printing -curious that one of the earlier mass-produced commodities should so prefigure the inbuilt obsolescence of modern durables- nonetheless, for just this reason, creates this extraordinary mass ceremony: the almost precisely simultaneous consumption (‘imagining’) of the newspaper-as-fiction. We know that particular morning and evening editions will overwhelmingly be consumed between this hour and that, only on this day, not that.

The significance of this mass ceremony -Hegel observed that newspapers serve modern man as a substitute for morning prayers- is paradoxical. It is performed in silent privacy, in the lair of the skull. Yet each communicant is well aware that the ceremony he performs is being replicated simultaneously by thousands (or millions) of others of whose existence he is confident, yet of whose identity he has not the slightest notion. Furthermore, this ceremony is incessantly repeated at daily or half-daily intervals throughout the calendar. What more vivid figure for the secular, historically clocked, imagined community can be envisioned? At the same time, the newspaper reader, observing exact replicas of his own paper being consumed by his subway, barbershop, or residential neighbours, is continually reassured that the imagined world is visibly rooted in everyday life.”

Bonus: Alexis de Tocqueville on newspapers

“The effect of a newspaper is not only to suggest the same purpose to a great number of persons, but to furnish means for executing in common the designs which they may have singly conceived. The principal citizens who inhabit an aristocratic country discern each other from afar; and if they wish to unite their forces, they move towards each other, drawing a multitude of men after them. In democratic countries, on the contrary, it frequently happens that a great number of men who wish or who want to combine cannot accomplish it because as they are very insignificant and lost amid the crowd, they cannot see and do not know where to find one another. A newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling that had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at length meet and unite. The newspaper brought them together, and the newspaper is still necessary to keep them united.”