A Bolivian province, Santa Cruz, held a referendum over the weekend. Unsurprisingly, voters in the oil-rich area supported greater autonomy–and keeping a greater portion of their oil revenue–from the central government. At least a few comments on the topic centered on the fact that Bolivia is an imagined community to which citizens feel only a weak allegiance. I, as you can see, felt compelled to say something about the topic.
It’s pretty had to argue against the fact that every nation is an illusion. The community of “Americans” is only as real as your belief in it. So too as the community of “the French,” “the Algerians,” “the Saudis,” “the Japanese,” or “the Mexicans.” It’s often forgotten that the history of “civilization” has been dedicated, with varying rapidity and skill, to creating cohesive nation-states. Slowly kingdoms sought to forge a coherent identity for their subject, and a sense of loyalty to far-away rulers that would otherwise be seen as strangers.
It’s not hard to understand that tribes are a simplified form of the modern nation state. One can easily imagine a group of 12 people getting together and deciding they’ll band together to assure for their mutual security and future. The nation-state is essentially this process writ large, and sometimes without the decision being agreed to by all parties.
Before France became a country with defined borders and a set identity, there were no French people. There were Parisians, Normans, Provencals, and Corsicans (to name only a few). It was an intentional project and to press upon them their identity not as regional or tribal, but national. Language is a powerful way to do this. All French speakers can, by virtue of sharing a language, see themselves as a coherent national community. Another popular way to forge national identity is war. Starting a conflict between two recently conceived nations is an easy way to consolidate their identities.
The United States prides itself on being unique in the nature of its illusion. We love to assert that we’re special because no Americans–with the exceptions of the Amerindians we willfully forget–have historical claim to this land. We don’t look the same, often don’t speak the same, and yet we’re all American. “The Great American Melting Pot,” is the School House Rock lyrics that leaps to mind.
We’re taught from grade school that regardless of our ethnic, racial, or personal history we’re Americans because we believe in and belong to the community of Americans. We’re part of “the people” because we chose to be, even if decades and generations ago.
And though this is an obvious statement that “Americans” are truly an illusory, imaginary group, we tend to forget it. To forget that French people weren’t always French. That Pakistanis weren’t Pakistanis until 60 years ago. That Bangladeshis weren’t Banglideshis until 50 years ago. That Eritrians weren’t Eritrians until 15 years ago.
By some estimates, it’s taken 5000 years to create the set of nations we know today. And the map still changes. Kosovo became a country not six months ago. All of these nations are illusions, based on historical flukes, choices, and random chance. And I, for one, hope that we never lose touch with how arbitrary these division are.