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Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community

Bernard Yack

Department of Politics
Brandeis University
Note: This paper consists of the opening section of the Introduction, Chapter 2, and the opening section of Chapter 3 of my book manuscript, Nation and Individual: Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community in Modern Political Life.


Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community In Modern Political Life


The rise of nationalism is one of modern history’s greatest surprises. The great 18th century prophets of modern society expected the spread of commerce to weaken both communal loyalty and hostility toward outsiders. And the classic 19th century theories of modern society identified modern times with a general shift from Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft, from intergenerational communities to voluntary associations of individuals. But the near universal spread of nationalism suggests that at least one form of intergenerational community has not only survived, but flourished in the modern world. The nation, it seems, has shared the individual’s rise to prominence in modern political life.

When historical developments surprise us in this way, it usually means that there is something wrong either with our assumptions about should have happened or with our interpretations of what actually did happen. With regard to the triumph of nationalism most scholars seem to have concluded that it is our interpretations of events that need correction. For they have worked very hard at developing interpretations of nationalism that bring the phenomenon back into line with the conceptual dichotomies – community v. society, tradition v. modernity – that ground our most influential theories of modern society and development. Some argue that despite its bad manners and country dress nationalism is really quite at home, even indispensable, in the modern world of contract and commerce. Others teach us that nationalism is an intruder from the pre-modern world of blood and soil, an outburst of the primitive passions that modern society has tried so hard to repress. Still others contend that nationalism appears in both forms, as a liberal devotion to shared political principles in so-called civic nations and as an illiberal passion for ancestor worship in so-called ethnic nations.

But if nations and nationalism have become so commonplace in the modern world, then perhaps it is our theoretical assumptions about intergenerational community that cry out for revision, rather than our interpretations of nations and nationalism. If national community plays so large a role in modern societies, then perhaps we were wrong to identify modern life so completely with a shift from the contingencies of intergenerational loyalty to the purposiveness of individual choice and contract. If large and impersonal national forms of community appear in both modern and traditional societies, then perhaps we were wrong to identify the pre-modern world wholly with kin and village centered communities. No doubt the nation, with its passionate appeals to inherited loyalties, looks like an anomaly in the modern world when viewed through the lens of our most influential theories of history and social development. But if it has nevertheless risen to unprecedented political importance in that world, then perhaps it is time to have our eyes checked and get some new lenses.

This book grinds such lenses and shows how to use them in the study of nations and nationalism. It proposes a broader and more flexible theory of community, one that treats community as a generic component of human association and moral psychology, rather than as a special product of traditional family and village life. And it then shows how we can use this theory to improve our efforts to explain and evaluate the role of nations and nationalism in modern political life. Part One seeks to identify and account for the distinctive role of nations and nationalism in our lives, while devoting special attention to the connections between nationalism and liberal politics. Part Two looks at some of the normative issues raised by that role, with special attention to the moral problems that nationalism creates for liberal ideals and institutions.

Much of the mystery and confusion surrounding the role of nations and nationalism in our lives disappears, I suggest, once we drop the assumption that social order comes in only two flavors: traditional or modern, communal or contractual, personal or impersonal. For then we no longer need to explain why such primitive guests have crashed the modern party or why modern, impersonal forms of association seem so intent on masquerading themselves as traditional communities of blood and soil. We can focus, instead, on the features that characterize nations in the ancient as well as in the modern world – cultural heritage, impersonal association, imagined attachment to territory, categorical or unmediated equal membership – and then move on to consider why this particular form of community has taken on so much greater political importance in modern times than it did in earlier ages. Nationalism is certainly a complex social phenomenon. But once we free our understanding of community from the grip of the dichotomies that shape our most influential social theories, then we can begin to resolve many of the paradoxes that can make the study of nations and nationalism such a frustrating experience.

Benedict Anderson’s account of nations as “imagined communities” is an important step towards this goal.1 Indeed, I suspect that Anderson’s famous phrase owes much of its influence to the way in which it loosens the conceptual straitjacket that modern social theories have placed on thinking about national community. The concept of imagined communities helps us cross the divide that separates Gemeinschaft from Gesellschaft and begin to think more creatively about the forms of community that bind large and relatively impersonal groups like the nation.

Nevertheless, Anderson’s concept is only a first step in the right direction. For the triumph of nationalism in the modern world challenges us to rethink our understanding of communal membership itself, not just our understanding of how far such membership can be extended. In particular, it challenges us to improve our understanding of the moral psychology of community, our understanding of the way in which we imagine ourselves connected to people with whom we share things. If community plays such a powerful role in large, impersonal forms of association like the nation, then it cannot be defined in terms of familiarity, kinship, frequent interaction, or any of the other factors that unite the small face-to-face forms of association with which it is usually identified. Anderson’s concept of imagined community helps us account for the strong connections we feel to people with whom we never interact. But in doing so it raises new questions about what it means to be connected to others in a distinctly “communal” way.

In the Gemeinschaft model, it is the subordination of individuals to the group that makes a community. Communities connect us by submerging our differences in a collective will or identity and are contrasted with forms of association created to serve our interests as discrete individuals.2 In my alternative model, it is a moral relationship between individuals – which I call “social friendship” – that makes a community.3 Communities connect us by means of our disposition to show special concern and loyalty to people with whom we share things, rather than through our subordination to the group. These feelings of mutual concern and loyalty, unlike the submergence of individuals in the group, are a common feature of everyday life, though they are vary in depth and intensity from one form of community to another. For the members of some communities we are disposed to sacrifice a minute of our time, for the members of others, our lives. But every form of community, I suggest, relies on these moral sentiments to establish connections among individuals.

Community, I suggest, has taken so many different forms because human beings share so many different things – from places and practices to beliefs, choices or lineages – that can be imagined as sources of mutual connection. From this perspective, the relatively small and tightly integrated groups that our theoretical vocabulary associates with the term community represent a particular species of community, one that has less prominence in our lives now than it once had. The nation represents a different species of community, an intergenerational community whose members are connected by feelings of mutual concern and loyalty for people with whom they share a heritage of cultural symbols and stories.4

Since this alternative model of community does not demand the surrender of individual will or identity associated with older and more familiar models, it does not compel us to choose between primordialist theories of nationalism that exaggerate our loss of individuality and modernist or instrumentalist theories that underestimate the depth and genuineness of our communal attachments. We have every reason to unmask the efforts that nations often make to extend their reach deep into the past, all the way back to the kind of small, tightly integrated communities associated with the concept of Gemeinschaft. But we need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Just because nations often falsely claim one form of intergenerational community should not lead us to ignore the kind of intergenerational community that they actually do possess. Unfortunately, as long as we continue to employ conceptual dichotomies that oppose community to voluntary, impersonal, and distinctly modern forms of association, we will probably continue to do so. That is why I believe that we cannot make sense of the role of nations and nationalism in our lives until we develop a broader and more flexible understanding of the phenomenon of human community.


The Moral Psychology of Community

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