The Nation, an Ideology to Legitimate the National States

Alessandro Cavalli
Professor of Sociology at the University of Pavia, Italy

I am convinced that “nations” as meta-historical collectivities do not exist, they are historical phenomena that had a very precise beginning in the French Revolution and are in all probability destined to disappear more or less slowly with globalization, or rather with the Telematic Revolution. “Nations” are ideological phenomena constructed to legitimize a new type of state, the national state, which appeared in history between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Then Napoleon spread the contagion almost everywhere in Europe and, subsequently, the epidemic spread almost all over the world.

The fact that they are ideological phenomena does not mean that they are not “facts”; that human beings have beliefs is a fact, just as real as the belief of the ancients (and also of the Popes at the time of Galileo) that the sun is turning, based on appearances, around the earth. Thus, it is an empirically verifiable fact that many human beings believe in the existence of nations (as well as many believe in the existence of God, even if no one has yet been able to demonstrate it empirically).

Beliefs arise and develop when they are the answer to a question, a need. Political power needs legitimation. The aristocracies and monarchies have ruled by the grace of God, but at some point in time the people (actually the rich and educated bourgeoisie) rebelled, they no longer believed in the legends that justified power based on blood and dynastic lineage. It was necessary to find other legends to justify the new power; so, the king of Sardinia and all the other rulers began to govern “by the grace of God and the will of the nation”. At a certain point, with the ideas of democracy, the grace of God disappeared and the will of the nation remained. The idea of nation is closely linked to the idea of government by the people and for the people, that is, democracy. Mazzini was rightly cited, as he was at the same time a nationalist, a pro-European and a globalist, but at that time he had not yet seen the contradiction between the sovereign national state and democracy. After the two world wars, at least in Europe, the idea of the nation state has shown all its negative sides and it is evident that it is a form of state that must be, and probably will be, overcome.

In certain parts of Europe, the national ideology has served some countries to survive the imperial yoke of the USSR, and this explains why in the East it lasts longer. Even in England (not in the United Kingdom) it resists because it is nostalgically linked to the imperial idea. However, two centuries of coexistence between nation and democracy cannot be easily erased, because two centuries of history cannot be erased, just as national states cannot be erased; they must be overcome, resized, become member states of a new form of statehood linking democracy to supranational institutions. But these institutions are struggling to establish themselves, and in times of crisis people are afraid and want to take refuge under the umbrella that exists, that is, the national state, and not under the umbrella that does not yet exist. When the nation-states will be downsized, the idea of nation will have partly exhausted its function, without the need to celebrate its death, because, for better or worse, for a not insignificant period of time it had been coexisting with the idea of democracy.

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