In one sense, nothing could have undermined the concept of the nation more than its appropriation by our president. By claiming “nationalism” as his guiding ideology, Donald Trump did far more than associate himself with white nationalists. As our conspicuous propagandist-in-chief, Trump’s championing of nationalism forced us to grapple with the question of what, if anything, we mean by “nation” to begin with. And it turns out, the concept is a lot fuzzier than you may think.
Although there weren’t really any official nation states until the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, what we think of as a nation was invented during the three or four centuries prior, by early European monarchs looking to consolidate their power. These were former lords of feudalism, who had depended on the labor of peasants for centuries, but were now losing control. Their dwindling kingdoms were less relevant to people than the growing cities in which they worked and traded. A newly rich city merchant class was challenging the nobility from below.
The monarchs tried a bunch of things to save their kingdoms from the nouveau riche. First, they outlawed all local monies. Only the king could issue currency, he would be paid for it with interest, and — almost as important — his head would be on the coin. Monarchs also began making deals with their favorite, most loyal merchants called “chartered monopolies,” which granted exclusive control over an industry or territory — in return for a share of the profits. Those proto-corporations, in turn, colonized the New World, protected by royal gunships.
But they needed to win over their people over in less coercive ways — convince them that they were really a part of the project. The monarchs needed a myth to get these former peasants to stop identifying with their town or county of origin but as part of a much larger, quite abstract economic and colonial power defined less by geography than control. The myth of Nation was born.
People were encouraged — by church, school, regulation, and commerce — to embrace their new identity as “natives” of this entity, the nation. No matter that they had always thought of themselves as representing different clans, tribes, or cultures. Now they had a unifying myth of origin and purpose.
Creating such unifying mythologies is a time-honored tradition that goes all the way back the Torah. Much to the chagrin of many True Believers, the so-called Old Testament is a mythological common origin story that sought to unify the disparate tribes of Israel by recasting a bunch of nomadic tribes in the desert as descendants of one guy, Jacob. Indeed, the Biblical characters of Joseph and his brothers would have been understood by the Torah’s original audience as a bit of satire, with each brother in the story embodying the stereotypical qualities of a real tribe of the period. The myth of a common ancestry encouraged descendants of these competing tribes to think of themselves as one nation.
Instead of depending on some a-historical mythology — from Bible stories to Make America Great Again — the power of a nation state should come from its citizens’ conscious and active choice to live within a unifying ethical framework. It’s an ongoing negotiation between a cluster of human colonies. Not a set of boundaries, but a moving target. Open source.
The experiment fails, however, when we conceive of our nation as something forged in the past — some blood-and-soil claim to authentic origins or divine rights — rather than an approach to the future. The backwards-looking nation builds walls to protect its boundaries, defines its citizens with ever-more precision, and protects the profits of its chartered corporations even at the expense of the climate, economy, and the well-being of its people. Nationalism is an ideology that depends on forgetting that the nation is a social construction, subordinating people and places to the imaginary framework.
As nation states disconnect from the needs of people, it has fallen to the real human colonies — the cities — to serve as true representatives of the people’s will. In the United States, cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Seattle are all directly addressing environmental and immigration issues that have become too difficult for national leaders to address without contradicting mythologies of national origin or manifest destiny. A nation state’s dependence on such myths makes it the natural enemy of the facts on the ground. Truth becomes treason.
But jingoism is no substitute for solidarity. While jingoism is based on false notions of race and destiny, solidarity finds its power in the affiliation of real people, living and working together toward common goals. The city is the largest natural amalgamation of people we’ve got. Cities grew as large as our capacity to transport sewage from the center to the periphery. Yet however large a city gets, it remains a local phenomenon, defined by people in a place — not by politicians from afar. It was the city-state that was repressed by the rise of nationalism, and the city-state that will rise again as nations fail to address the challenges of our time.
If there’s a silver lining to today’s virulent nationalism, it’s that it has exposed the false premise on which our nation states were built, and the corporate agenda that has fueled them ever since. 2018 will be remembered as the year the world’s most powerful country finally broke the notion of nation, itself.