A nation is usually defined as a group of people who identify with each other due to a common bond. To be politically relevant, this bond has to innately connected to identity, such as ethnicity or language. A nation is, as Benedict Anderson put it, an “imagined community.” It isn’t based on personal interactions, a choice of who to align oneself with, or a clear objective rationale. Rather, people for whatever reason identify with a particular trait or idea, and then see themselves as part of a community.
Nations are therefore historical and social constructs, existing only because people have chosen to define themselves as unified by a particular label. Moreover, nations emerged in Europe with the rise of modernism, as groups started to differentiate themselves on the basis of language and perceived ethnic identity. Before nations, the primary source of European identity was the Church. All Europeans were Christians, members of the holy Catholic Church, unified in Christ. A French speaking peasant and a German speaking peasant didn’t feel a sense of being French or German — they’d probably never meet each other, and the language they used or where they lived didn’t factor much into identity. France might exist on a map, but it was abstract.
Napoleon Bonaparte changed all that. After the French revolution France descended into chaos, as the revolutionaries realized that reason and rational thought, while very useful in criticizing the old order, didn’t give them a clear set of principles for how to govern. Napoleon took power, and soon turned to the imagery of the France to create a new form of identity.
The French tricolor, once a battle flag, became a sacred symbol of the state. We feel the impact of Napoleon’s efforts today, when you look at controversies that arise over the American flag. There is nothing truly sacred about a flag, but it becomes a focal point of that imagined common identity. The power of nationalism was obvious as a country that went from bankruptcy to revolution to chaotic weakness came together to conquer Europe.
Nationalism replaced religion as the primary mode of identity in the modern era. The idea that Christians were slaughtering Christians in World Wars I and II was irrelevant; what mattered was that Germans, French, British and Russians were fighting. To be sure, Christians had fought Christians during the reformation, but those fights were about religion — each side felt the other had the “wrong” interpretation of the faith. By the modern era, it simply didn’t matter, nation trumped faith. The power of nationalism is intense, because it joins people together in a common, collective identity, often able to be manipulated by skillful political leaders.
In an era of globalization, these modern notions of national identity are breaking down, especially with young people. Not that nationalism is disappearing. Indeed, while nations themselves may be imagined communities, they do attest to something more fundamental about humans — we are social creatures whose identity cannot be determined through purely individual means. At one level this is obvious — every attribute, description, and label I give myself comes mediated through a language. By definition humans are products of culture and history, if any of us were born in a different time or place we’d be fundamentally different people.
Yet humans are also individuals. This dual nature explains so much political acrimony, as people tend to emphasize one over the other, rather than think critically about how they intersect. We have individual identities connected to collective identities. That is what makes nationalism such a potent force, if leaders can manipulate our sense of identity and command loyalty, they can unleash collective power, often in destructive ways that damage individual liberty and autonomy.
Nationalism in that traditional sense may be fading, if what I said about the obsolescence of the centralized bureaucratic state is accurate. If central states are less dominant, then national identity will lose its centrality. In that sense it will go the path of religious identity, remaining important, often powerful, but not central.
Consider Facebook. I have about 200 facebook friends, though most of them are people I would otherwise have no contact with. Some are old friends from college or grad school, some are colleagues, and some are actual family and “real” friends. This list includes students who were on various travel courses I was part of, and we friended each other primarily to share pictures. Now I read about their job hunts, new children, and other life events, knowing what is happening in a way I otherwise could not. Unlike some faculty members, I have no problem being ‘facebook friends’ with students.
People also organize political campaigns or promote causes, comment on each others’ status, and it as entertaining way to feel part of other peoples’ lives, some of whom I wouldn’t recognize if they greeted me on the street. As I glance through this, I wonder what this says about identity and connections in the future. I get amused by folk of my generation who find facebook almost scandalous due to its lack of privacy. “What these kids share! Don’t they realize this is out there forever,” one colleague murmured. Yes, they do. And they don’t care. It’s a different world.
Facebook now has 500 million members, and is growing strong. Its mode of communication, lay out, and little controversies are common to most of its users, as are popular posts and links. It generates discussion, debate and can spread knowledge about both important major events or about how many times a new parent had to get up to change diapers last night.
In a sense it’s like a nation — a post-modern nation where collective identity is diffuse and diverse. Unlike ethnic nations with strict rules on language and “blood,” Facebook Nation is defined by whatever the users want to identify with. The connections are loose, yet powerful. Students admit to spending too much time on facebook, and there is a sense of community in keeping up with what others are doing, or sharing a thought or idea, knowing that it’ll at show up on a couple hundred screens. In that sense, it commands loyalty and respect, even if there is no central power pulling the strings or manipulating the users.
If so, that’s a good thing. Facebook Nation will launch no wars, operate no sweat shops, and force no one to join who does not want to be there. It is a new kind of collective identity, one which seems to exercise little power over the politics and social conflicts of the day, but a lot of power over how people spend their time. And given the damage done by state-centric modern nationalism, a decentralized post-modern facebook nation is a welcome change. It isn’t itself the “face” of the future, but it may be an indication of where we as a society are heading, thanks to the technology driven information revolution we’re experiencing.