THE BIRTH OF NATIONS
By Roland Watson
There has been tremendous evolution in the forms of social organization, and the governments thereof, throughout the human experience. Indeed, in its earliest forms human societies existed without governments, or any other institutions, at all. Which isn't to say that there wasn't a centralization of power. There was: it accrued to the father, or to the strongest and most fearless, or to the eldest and most wise.
But over time, as more people grouped together and societies grew larger, the first independent governments were established. But at the same time, the people remained paramount. These were ancillary positions with clearly delimited roles. And, in most cases their authority was minimal. Individuals retained virtually complete mastery over their lives: over all aspects of their everyday existence.
Still later, even more populous societies developed, such as the first cities, and their successors, empires. But in many cases these were only loosely organized cultures, or collections of cultures. Their basis as a source of identity was limited. You would think of yourself first as a member of a particular people, not as a resident of a city, or member of an empire, much less of a state or nation.
In the Middle Ages, much of the East retained simple tribal organizations and, in a few cases - as with China - empires. But in the West barbarian kingdoms were created and, as we have seen, they often clashed with the Church. But they still did not constitute nations. It was "largely owing to gunpowder" (Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy) that these kingdoms evolved into the new European national monarchies, which were finally able to escape the domination of the Church and the residual influences of the Roman Empire.
It is a sad testament, but completely in harmony with historical precedent, that the foundation of nations is due to the development of modern weaponry.
Over time the world, which formerly was (and in essence still is) a collection of cultures, evolved into a collection of nations. Borders were sewn up (this process is now being completed), passports were introduced, and the concept of personal identity shifted from cultural to national.
Furthermore, throughout the entire period of human existence, different groups have struggled to achieve dominance. In this process the critical factor determining success has been their degree of social cohesiveness. [Ibid.] Groups with great cohesiveness, with strong feelings of group identity and purpose, were able to overcome other less cohesive societies. The development of nations was therefore inevitable, since it enabled a clearer, stronger sense of identity to be formed, and appealed to, through "nationalism," and hence it created an advantage over other groups.
It is also profoundly disturbing that the origins of nationalism lie in "racism," albeit with a broader meaning but the same undertone. In its original usage a nation was a race - most nations were ethnically homogenous - and quite often the national goal was to dominate other nations, i.e., other races.
Now we have nations, founded as they are on the techniques of war, and on bigotry, and for all intents and purposes we are stuck with them. Any effective movements toward achieving world peace must confront the fact that the dominant form of social organization has as its predicate preparation for war.
Also, what this shows is that national identity is an appendage of cultural identity, although they are usually viewed as the same. Culture is what a child learns in its earliest years, all of the rules and values that define how the people in a particular social group relate to each other. Even very young children develop such a concept of identity, but it is not until they are older that they add the aspect of nationality, the perspective of us relative to others. Culture definitely precedes, and is distinct from, nationality.
The predicates of nationality are seen most clearly in the purposes of government. But before considering this, it is worth mentioning two things. All of this social evolution notwithstanding, people, as individuals, actually require very little government. Nothing has changed from our earliest days. We have free will, we are responsible for ourselves, and we can take care of ourselves. We survived as a species for approximately two hundred thousand years without any government at all.
Secondly, now, as we are much more populous, we do require some government, if only to increase the efficiency of our social organization. But, as we moved from tribes to nations, we moved from a situation of no government to one where governments became massive, impacting all areas of life and dominating economies. And, a significant contributor to this was technology. It has been observed that technology increased the rate of change, and one byproduct of this was social confusion. This in turn led to greater efforts on the part of social institutions to achieve, or impose, control, hence their extraordinary growth and the centralization of their power.
But this is not all: during the process massive shadow governments developed as well, from courts, to oppositions, to the modern context with special interests, lobbyists and "think-tanks." Our existence has changed from one where nobody told us anything, to modern society, where we are told by a powerful central government, and numerous parallel groups, what to do about everything.
© Roland Watson 2016