July 15, 2010

The Dreams of the Cartographer, on Nations and Nationalism

Hobsbawm's thesis here is that with the emergence of a stable dual-polar national power structure, the influence of nationalism based on mythological ethno-linguistic `nations' will fade in the late twentieth century. Writing now, I have perspective on European and Asian nationalisms that give lie to his thesis based on the fracturing of the Soviet Union and its sphere of influence. His historical description and analysis are interesting as he develops further the ideas of Gellner and Anderson. However, one has to doubt his predictive powers:

"For instance, let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that a new `Europe of nations' in the Wilsonian sense were to emerge, or an Asia or Africa of nations. (The scope for a Latin America of ethnic/linguistic nations is considerably more restricted.) Spain would be diminished by the secession of Euskadi and Catalonia, Britain by that of Scotland and Wales, France by that of Corsica, Belgium would become two countries, while further east the states of the present Soviet sphere of influence would go their own way, perhaps with Slovaks separating from Czechs, and the Balkans would be redivided among Slovene, Croat, Serb and enlarged Albanian states, with an independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania re-emerging along the Baltic. Can it seriously be supposed that such a Balkanization, extended on a world scale, would provide a stable or lasting political system?" (176-177)

As far as that has happened, and it has happened far enough to make Hobsbawm seem prescient in the opposite direction he intended, I would say that this has provided for a stable system. Although it has created conflicts along the lines that are predictable as there is heterogeneous mixture of `nations' everywhere, the system is relatively stable. While I await a post-`national' world of a singular state and not a singular sphere of influence creating villains from the ether, at least it provides a decent organizing principle behind international football matches. As long as we can keep our imagined differences in the realm of sport, humanity should be fine. Instead we keep creating difference. Hobsbawm asks: "What else but the solidarity of an imaginary `us' against a symbolic `them' would have launched Argentina and Britain into a crazy war for some South Atlantic bog and rough pasture?" (163). He denigrates Falklands, but all conflicts are at best over bog and pasture. At least they have a material and not an ideological basis. I hope that the shocks to the cartographers over the years between the writing of this text and my review are world-historical abnormalities outside of Hobsbawm's thesis and not refutations of it.
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