Protesilaos Stavrou
Philosopher. Polymath.

What is the nation

Structured Text on Sovereignty, Nationhood, Statehood - Book index

1 The nation is a potential impersonal agent of sovereign will.

1.1 By “agent” we refer to the subject that forms sovereign will. The prevailing conditions in which agency is made manifest constitute the “structure”, the objective magnitude.

1.2 By “potential” we indicate that we account for circumstances that could hinder or altogether prevent sovereign will formation. The capacity to act is not realisable independent of the structure. Action is not absolute.

1.2.1 The need to factor in the circumstances hints at the distinction between headline and effective sovereignty. What appears “on paper”, that which ought to be, does not necessarily correspond to reality.

1.3 And by “impersonal” we signify the nature of this entity as a collective. It is in contradistinction to other types of sovereign agency, where a person is touted as the embodiment of supreme political authority or as the personification of the state.

1.4 What exactly amounts to a nation remains imprecise. The lack of a physical, readily identifiable presence leads to ambiguity. A nation can, at first, be any of the following:

  • A culturally defined group of people, without access to an integrated political order (stateless nations, diasporas, ethnic minorities residing outside the boundaries of their ‘parent’ nation’s territorial confines).
  • A legally defined group of people, without a common identity, or, with a loose overarching cultural affiliation (newly-formed states comprising multiple cultural nuclei, decisively multicultural societies, the possibility of a nation that emerges from a union of nations).
  • Combinations of the above, with either of the two contributing to the formation of the other.

;; Cultural-historical constructs.
;; Nations are not limited to biological factors.

1.4.1 As to where genetics fit in this description, the consideration has to be two-fold: (i) a common culture can be the natural extension of shared ancestry, even though it is not limited to it nor is culture a function of kinship, and (ii) if biology were an irreducible factor of nationhood, then only biologically homogeneous nations would exist as natural constants.

1.5 Regardless of their origins as cultural-historical or legal constructs, nations can only function as agents of sovereign will formation if they are inwardly homogeneous.

;; Inward homogeneity is a nation’s sense of self.

1.5.1 Homogeneity of this sort pertains to the group’s self-awareness. Each individual identifies with their nation, in whatever terms the mutual bond may be defined in.

1.5.2 If the members of a given nation do not feel any connection to it, or swear allegiance to another collective, then the presumed nation cannot exercise sovereignty as a nation. A subset may claim to be representing the totality of the group, forcing its will on the rest. But in such cases, the nation exists as an inwardly homogeneous whole in name only.

1.5.3 There is, nonetheless, an element of temporality involved. At any given period, a nation may be fragmented, such as in instances of internal strife, or ideological divides like the Cold War. The fragmentation can be fully evaluated as temporary or as the new normality only with the benefit of historical hindsight. Amidst the events, all that can be said is that the nation is not operating as a singular agent of sovereign will formation.

1.5.4 Temporality or, more generally, the prevailing conditions, can explain cases where one presumed nation has more than one states or, conversely, where multiple nations form part of a greater nation.

2 Inward homogeneity and its byproducts are here defined as a nation’s irreducible quality of “inwardness”.

2.1 From a macro historical perspective, nations develop organically as collectives with a tendency for inward solidarity, that can culminate through means of supreme political authority. The sense of belonging is the basis for shared experiences and the further development of norms and value systems. These engender a belief in togetherness: a commitment to the nation.

2.1.1 The term “organic” should not be interpreted as denoting biological factors.

2.1.2 An organism is a distributed, self-sustaining system.

2.1.3 A system is a nexus of variable factors that produces local and global effects germane to the factors’ joint presence. It is a set of relations that gives rise to emergent phenomena.

2.1.4 Emergent is the phenomenon that can only be discerned in the joint operation of its contributing factors, never in each factor’s isolated state.

2.1.5 Put concretely, an organic whole is one that is sustained without incessant outside intervention.

2.2 The sense of togetherness that is peculiar to nations is derived from within the operations of the nations’ particulars. It is endogenous.

2.3 Unlike a tribe, nations need not share a common ancestry in the strict sense. Blood ties are secondary to the shared sense of belonging. The belief in the collective, in the very presence of a body that encompasses and binds together individuals, leads to a fundamental generalisation: individuals do not have to share any specific connection to their fellow nationals in order to feel close to them. The mere understanding that they belong to the same nation is a reliable starting point for developing virtuous relationships both at a personal and a political level.

2.4 Affinity can be understood in terms of affirmation or negation. Concerning the latter, it can be formulated in juxtaposition to a dissimilar presence. The sense of feeling closer to a fellow national can be reinforced by comparing them to individuals or groups thereof of a different background. A “we-they” method. Whereas the affirmative approach develops the parts of the identity that are peculiar to the nation: the shared experiences, historical images, values and representations, etc.

2.4.1 National identity does not necessarily commit to any one of these approaches. It can be a combination of affirmation and negation.

2.5 Inwardness is but a propensity. Be it as a whole or in either of its components of togetherness and solidarity.

2.5.1 A propensity is not a constant, not an absolute value that holds true regardless of the prevailing conditions. It is context dependent. As such, the term “propensity” is more of a way of denoting that individuals feel close to—or express solidarity towards—their fellow nationals “during the good times”, or “under normal circumstances”, or even “when the entire nation is compelled to act united”. It is a way of noting the possibility that a given nation does not exhibit holistic inwardness at any one point in time. Put differently: that it exhibits inwardness in a limited, selective, or incomplete fashion. For instance, structural violence, segregation, social inequalities, and other forms of injustice indicate the absence of holistic inwardness. What consolidates a nation’s inwardness, its propensity for solidarity and for togetherness, is the appropriate configuration of norms and institutions.

2.6 The primacy of inwardness as the defining feature of a nation does not preclude kinship. There can be nations that are biologically homogeneous, while still sustaining an identity with their peculiar magma of traditions and values. They can exist as a very big family of sorts.

;; Do not think of nations as natural constants.

2.6.1 Such a possibility needs to be backed up by sufficient evidence, which is outside the scope of this work. Defer to anthropology and neighboring fields of research. In the absence of sufficient evidence, claims on a common ancestry are more a product of ideology, ill designed research methods, or pseudoscience. They might hint at a kernel of truth, though not the entirety of it.

2.6.2 Furthermore, whether biology can actually be a predictor of nationhood remains open to scrutiny. There has to be sufficient proof that points at a causal link between blood relations and cultural-historical artefacts. Biology would need to be defined as the primary cause or, at least, as a major contributing factor of collective experience and development. Unless that is proven to be the case, a nation’s inner workings must be tentatively considered independently of genetics.

3 A nation is a broadly distributed interpersonal—an emergent—phenomenon.

3.1 The nation is impersonal. It is not made manifest in any given shape or form. It is amorphous.

3.2 A nation’s presence is contingent on the common belief of its existence among its members. Individuals forming the nation must have a shared faith in its presence. Only then the nation actualises as an inwardly homogeneous group bound by a spirit of togetherness and solidarity.

3.2.1 A group of people becomes a nation when it develops the credence of its identity to a point where it organically exhibits inward homogeneity.

3.2.2 The organic quality is paramount. It introduces the temporal magnitude, so that the nation is confirmed as such intergenerationally. Otherwise any like-minded group would be virtually indistinguishable from a nation.

3.2.3 The other element that is essential, is the sense of being close to people who are complete strangers. Again, that distinguishes the nation from a club. Nationals feel related to each other even when they have never met. They can assume that they have many things in common and that they are more alike than compared to people from a different background.

3.2.4 Each individual may have a particular idea of what the nation is or means to them. What matters is the common denominator. A set of factors that all can recognise and agree to.

3.2.5 Language, shared traditions, a history of proximity and close affiliation, would be obvious markers.

3.2.6 However, there is no exhaustive list of criteria, nor is there a requirement that all of them are met. Different nations exhibit different features. For example, Americans are a nation of immigrants. The United Kingdom is a nation of nations. Germany and Austria are considered two separate nations even though there have been times in their history where they were seen by some as different political organisations of an otherwise singular nation. Russia is a nation that includes, among others, diverse groups of people each with its own republic within the Russian federation. Nations can exhibit unique characteristics. That is to be expected. They are formed in a cultural-historical context. Each set of conditions is likely to be specific to a given time and place.

;; A nation is contingent on convention.

3.3 A nation has to be cultivated in the mind as such. Biological factors are not sufficient to bind together a large group of strangers, especially in the absence of a common basis for establishing political constructs.

3.4 Ultimately that hints at the centrality of ideology. A nation can be made to be. It can form from within another nation, emerge from a union of nations, or be developed from an arbitrary assemblage of people that are initially only related to each other by mere circumstance.