Monday, March 25, 2013

Nations and Nationalism - 4

Nations and Nationalism, Ernest Gellner

But nationalism has its own amnesias and selections which, even when they may be severely secular, can be profoundly distorting and deceptive.

The basic deception and self-deception practised by nationalism is this: nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalized diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves. That is what really happens.

But this is the very opposite of what nationalism affirms and what nationalists fervently believe. Nationalism usually conquers in the name of a putative folk culture. Its symbolism is drawn from the healthy, pristine, vigorous life of the peasants, of the Volk, the  narod. There is a certain element of truth in the nationalist self-presentation when the narod or Volk is ruled by officials of another, an alien high culture, whose oppression must be resisted first by a cultural revival and reaffirmation, and eventually by a war of national liberation. If the nationalism prospers it eliminates the alien high culture, but it does not then replace it by the old local low culture; it revives, or invents, a local high (literate, specialist-transmitted) culture of its own, though admittedly one which will have some links with the earlier local folk styles and dialects [on the surface].

The transition from agrarian to industrial society has a kind of entropy quality, a shift from pattern to systematic randomness. [Industrial society's] territorial and work units are adhoc: membership is fluid, has a great turnover, and does not generally engage or commit the loyalty and identity of members. In brief, the old structures are dissipated and largely replaced by an internally random and fluid totality, within which there is not much (certainly when compared with the preceding agrarian society) by way of genuine sub-structures. There is very little in the way of any effective, binding organization at any level between the individual and the total community [..].

But an important point is brought out by stressing the need for this random-seeming, entropic mobility and distribution of individuals in this kind of society. Within it, though sub-communities are partly eroded, and their moral authority is much weakened, nevertheless people continue to differ in all kinds of ways. People can be categorized as tall and short, as fat and thin, dark and light, and in many other ways. Clearly, there is simply no limit to the number of ways in which people can be classified. Most of the possible classifications will be of no interest whatever. But some of them become socially and politically very important. They are those which I am tempted to call entropy-resistant.

A classification is entropy-resistant if it is based on an attribute which has a marked tendency not to become, even with the passage of time since the initial establishment of an industrial society, evenly dispersed throughout the entire society. In such an entropy-resistant case, those individuals who are characterized by the trait in question tend to be concentrated in one part or on the totality of society. The rest of this argument can now easily be anticipated: entropy-resistant traits constitute a very serious problem for industrial society.