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Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities (1983) is often depicted as a mountain of a book which subjected nationalism to a degree of analysis which it had hitherto been denied. Anderson launches his thesis with the observation that “plausible theory” about nationalism is “conspicuously meagre,” and that no theorist of the magnitude of Marx, Freud, or Darwin has yet addressed the questions raised by the nation. Yet whilst one may suspect that the most influential contributor to the analysis of nationalism will turn out to be Anderson himself, Imagined Communities is a profoundly inadequate book and there is already a whiff of rot around many of its conclusions.

Once upon a time, according to Anderson, there was an age of religious imagined communities, in which meaning depended upon the “non-arbitrariness of the sign” and religious texts were consequently written in privileged and “untranslatable” languages. These prevailed (if only amongst elites) throughout the states and regions encompassed within the religious community. Anderson contends that with the rise of “print capitalism”, innovations such as the newspaper and the novel identified (or “imagined”) and addressed new “national” communities. These texts resorted to vernacular languages rather than the old privileged languages; or established formal versions of these vernacular tongues, which could be understood throughout the regions which made up the new nation and by those who had previously been unschooled in privileged languages.

Reading newspapers and novels became the “mass ceremony” through which the national community was “imagined.” The religious imagined community had been characterised by “a conception of temporarily in which cosmology and history were indistinguishable”; so that the material world was represented as fixed and unchanging whilst the origins and the end of the world were always present in religious truths. Throughout the new imagined communities, however, millions of unconnected individuals were aware that they were mutually witnessing the life of their nation, as it moved “calendrically through homogenous, empty time.”

Anderson proposes that nationalism first emerged at the end of the eighteenth century amongst creole communities, and that the “conceptual model” was “pirated” around the world until it was “set in ineradicable place.” Although “official nationalism” was “from the start a conscious, self-protective policy, intimately linked to the preservation of imperial-dynastic interests”, subjected peoples soon took control of the nations “imagined” by colonial powers.

Imagined Communities initially demonstrates a recognisably Marxist economic determinism: a local bourgeoisie has to accrue enough capital to launch “print-capitalism”, there has to be a “national” market for printed materials, and similar economic circumstances determine the seemingly unstoppable course of nationalism as it is “pirated” around the world. Once the world has organised itself into nations, however, history stops. Revolutionary leaderships inherit nations and, however hostile they may be to the idea of nationalism, they “consciously or unconsciously” come to play “lord of the manor.” Anderson shoots the horse from under him, in discarding the Marxist analysis which has carried his theory to modernity. The nation is now a permanent and seemingly ahistorical political reality, and – aside from the possibility that the established array of nations may fracture into a greater number of nations – Anderson recognises no further opportunity for subsequent geopolitical “communities” to emerge.

Anderson’s rejection of Marxist theories of nationalism was informed by the spectacle of the 1978 Cambodian-Vietnamese war – “the first large-scale conventional war waged by one revolutionary Marxist regime against another” – in which “none of the belligerents has made more than the most perfunctory attempts to justify the bloodshed in terms of a recognizable Marxist theoretical perspective.” Anderson seems merely to insist that universalistic discourses such as Marxism should be qualified by a recognition of the nation‘s resilience. A bourgeoisie may be systematically exterminated, but as long as this remains, say, the British revolution, then it can be incorporated into Anderson’s model. Imagined Communities argues firstly that nationalism is both economically determined and that, once in being, it is too profound a characteristic of human experience to economically determined out of existence; and secondly that nationalism is a leading feature of modernity and that, by comparison, the citizen’s solidarities with a specific class or race can (or should) be only secondary. The nation, for Anderson, is the stage upon which all of modernity is enacted.

Anderson portrays the nation as the end of history, or even as utopian, so that Imagined Communities at times resembles Marxism without the happy ending. He argues that despite the tendency of “cosmopolitan intellectuals” to equate nationalism with bigotry and racism, “it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.” This is perhaps in danger of elevating stupidity to a great emotion. Anderson observes that, “for most ordinary people of whatever class the whole point of the nation is that it is interestless… it can ask for sacrifices.” The “aura of purity and disinterestedness” which comes from laying down one’s life for the nation makes this act fundamentally different to that of dying for the “proletariat” or “even Amnesty International.” It seems rather foolish, however, to agree to die for the nation in itself, or for some of the grubby things which have historically been defined as “national interests.”

Admittedly, the British army often seeks to recruit teenagers, because few rational adults can be persuaded to put their lives in danger for the sake of something as pointless as, say, the Falkland Islands. Yet one can (only) speculate that most recruits are motivated by a sense of immediate camaraderie with their fellow soldiers, or a love of danger and violence, or good wages and educational opportunities, or countless other interests, rather than the prospect of lemming-like sacrifice. At the suggestion of a link between nationalism and racism, Anderson maintains that, “today, even the most insular nations accept the principle of naturalization… no matter how difficult in practice they may make it.” Yet crimes such as the Nazi Holocaust or the mass murder of native Americans were committed against peoples not only defined as racially inferior, but as Other to the nation; and often through the very means of imagining the community in the first place, such as national newspapers which demonised excluded peoples.

Anderson’s contention that nations “inspire love” may jar with his thoroughly unromantic account of nationalism. He reduces the citizen to a consumer, who only (consciously) joins a nation by purchasing and reading all of the documents in which it is imagined. Citizenship emerges from this analysis as passive and contractual, and Anderson also rather overlooks the widespread illiteracy which prevails within many modern nations. Anderson’s nationalist is a bourgeois consumer and reader, and those who have no money hold an uncertain place in his nation.

In the twenty-first century – when “print capitalism” is not quite the force that it once was – Imagined Communities may already appear to be rather dated. Anderson leaves his story just when it starts to get interesting. Twentieth-century European immigration often took the form of permanent settlements; entailing the idea of arriving from an old nation and joining a new one. Such immigration was often involuntary and the immigrants themselves were often victims and exiles. In the twenty-first century, however, the rise of cheap air travel has furnished opportunities for more people (in the West) to lead a cosmopolitan lifestyle. This tourist immigration is unconcerned with the dichotomy of belonging and exclusion. Cosmopolitanism is suddenly far more the culture of the young – people who live hand to mouth – than it is that of middle-class liberals, who may own a home, vote, and pay taxes in a specific country; and may not have the energy and proficiency to access cosmopolitan culture in the same way that young people do.

Moreover, “print-capital” is being progressively usurped by cyberspace, and the individual may increasingly refer to the internet for news, entertainment, commerce, education, and social networking. Anderson’s analysis would logically imply that the users of these websites together constitute an emerging transnational imagined community. If amidst all of this nationalism may seem like something of a bore, Anderson maintains that nations inspire a disinterested “love”. In a 2005 interview with a University of Oslo internet journal (ironically enough), he argues that in an era of globalisation many immigrants resort to a strategy of “long-distance nationalism.” He provocatively declares that, “I haven’t met many cosmopolitans in my life, perhaps no more than five.”

Although Anderson seems to be blandly dismissive of cosmopolitanism, his position as an anthropologist alone intimates that “cosmopolitan” virtues such as tolerance, travelling, and an appreciation of foreign cultures are necessity, even if they merely complement a nationalistic conception of citizenship. Incidentally, Anderson states that “I no longer have such an attachment to England. I do have a certain – but not strong – attachment to the USA, and an attachment to places I have studied in Southeast Asia.” He resembles a man who quite likes the idea of nationalism, rather than necessarily having anything to do with it.

[Update 2012 – Regurgitating the Nation: A Measly Opium for the Masses. Ed.]