Los Angeles Review of Books

The Inescapable Nation

Research Fellow
Ghanese flag at the beach village below Jamestown Lighthouse (Getty Images)
Ghanese flag at the beach village below Jamestown Lighthouse (Getty Images)

In the early 1970s, the Provisional Irish Republican Army was on the backfoot in its campaign against the British authorities and Northern Ireland’s loyalist paramilitaries. Under near-constant surveillance, the Provos needed a cost-effective innovation that would allow them to hit their enemies hard without exposing the clandestine networks that sustained their insurgency. They found what they were looking for in the US-made Armalite rifle, first smuggled into Northern Ireland on, ironically enough, the British cruise liner Queen Elizabeth II. Semi-automatic, light, and easy to conceal, the Armalite was the ideal weapon for urban warfare.

As the gun made its way onto the streets and the bodies began piling up, the graffiti in Belfast’s Catholic neighborhoods heralded newfound confidence: “GOD MADE THE CATHOLICS,” read one banner, “BUT THE ARMALITE MADE THEM EQUAL.”

This cocksure turn of phrase, quoted in Patrick Radden Keefe’s new history of The Troubles, captures a narrative oft told in national histories: the belief in an underdog that uses whatever tools are available to rectify injustices wrought by rapacious neighbors or distant powers, the ultimate goal being to live undivided on one’s own soil. Substitute “Irish Catholics” with another nationality and “Armalite” with another lethal technology, and one could envision this graffiti in Palestine, Kosovo, or Kashmir.

Despite the ubiquity of nationalism throughout the late modern era, the five years since Brexit and the Trump election have seen pundits decrying the “return” of nationalism in the West, concern often grounded in a simplistic understanding of the phenomenon. Some reactions espouse denial (“This isn’t who we are”), bafflement (nationalism is silly because it is “ made up ” as one explainer put it in The New York Times), or thinly veiled contempt (this isn’t our fault; the masses are simply seduced by authoritarianism). For their part, many conservatives, following Trump, have sought to recast nationalism in a favorable light, reassuring their readers that they are, in their own way, on the “right side of history.”

If Western elites have frequently failed to understand nationalism in their own societies, then nationalism in the postcolonial world remains even more misunderstood. In discussions of Africa in particular, one still often sees ethnic nationalism portrayed as an antiquated tribalism. Yet Africa’s “tribal” conflicts often originate in the colonial era of divide-and-rule and the abrupt imposition of a Westphalian model of the nation-state onto societies that had previously organized along the lines of nebulous kingdoms, emirates, chiefdoms, nomadic societies, and the like. Now the formal architecture of global politics, the nation-state’s origins were parochial. Named after a region of Germany and the 17th-century treaties signed therein, the Westphalian system is the product of Europe’s unique early modern history. What began as a means of mitigating the destructive fallout of the Protestant Reformation now underpins everything from nuclear nonproliferation to international soccer. As the writer Nanjala Nyabola succinctly notes, “So much of how the world’s states function and fear comes from Europe’s bloody and violent history.”

Three important new studies scrutinize this relationship between European conquest and the modern state, each challenging the notion that our world of competing nation-states is the inevitable culmination of political development. Each book provides insightful case studies showing how diverse societies at various points in history have understood themselves in non-Westphalian terms, raising the question of whether a more cosmopolitan and perhaps more egalitarian political modernity might have been possible. Unfortunately, even if one believes that nationalism is a destructive social construct, it is far from clear that the genie can be put back in the bottle.

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