Professor Breuilly firstly makes it clear that the Nation State is a concept which changes, it is not a permanent geographic and political unit, although people do have, he says, widespread beliefs about the world which are problematic. To understand what this concept is and how it has changed, he takes us back to the Atlantic seaboard of Europe in the 16th century. At that time, there was no one dominant state surrounded by tributary states, however they began to engage in more aggressive forms of conflict with each other, often on the premises of territory, and increasingly competed with each other as equivalents. They had this idea that there is a system of states which are territorial states. Some of them were given names that we now recognize as nations like Spain, France and England, but these names were not based on the ideas that these territories constitute nations. The distance between aristocrats, guild members, commoners was so great that it was really difficult for people to think that they all had something in common. When people talked about the nation it was the top elite who did the talking rather than the whole nation. For consciousness of a nation to appear, we have to wait, Professor Breuilly says, until the 3rd Republic in the late 19th century, and the appearance of things like “railway building, compulsory schooling, urbanization, growing literacy levels, electoral politics and so on.” Before then, in the so-called ‘Capstone States,’ the governments were over and above most of the people, and didn't really interfere with most social operations. Central governments’ main tasks were taxation and conscripting men for the army. The countries were not centralized, but the governments were. Competition between these elites was projected beyond the non-European world; into the Americas, Africa and parts of Asia.
The ‘Capstone States’ began operating in a different way; when it was possible to distinguish between factors such as economy, politics, culture and religion, and the appearance of institutions which controlled different functions. These were not so much inventions of the ruling classes to control their populations, but organic processes of which no one group was in control of. At the same time, the state became much more sharply territorial, with state power uniform right up to the countries’ borders instead of state power weakening when you move away towards the borders. Members of the aristocracy and politicians began to represent not only their own interests. A consciousness of the ‘state’ appeared, along with a certain kind of nationalism.
It is difficult to say if the pre-modern states were multicultural or not, because of the difference in understanding of the term over time. Professor Breuilly explains that in a pre-modern society, you had a number of communities within a country that were tremendously independent in modern day terms and enjoyed great autonomy, whereas our definition of multiculturalism is based on individuals and we get very upset if Sharia law implements a different kind of system of justice within a state. So the key difference is that the groups within societies began to be run by people other than themselves, by institutions, and people became citizens.
Professor Breuilly rejected the host John Harrison’s suggestion that in order to avoid inter-ethnic conflicts, we return to a more medieval world, where autonomous communities were accepted within one territory, by saying that this would not be possible because we live in the modern world. Such solutions, he says, cannot necessarily be ‘re-inscribed’ into the modern world, we “have to think a bit further than that.” However, Professor Breuilly makes the interesting point at the end of the program that the dominant nation states came to power not as nation states at all, but as the national core of imperial states, and so we have to think of present day nation states of having an imperial quality to them. Professor Breuilly also debunks the importance of Westphalia, saying that it is a myth invented by International Relations Theorists to legitimize their subject.
This discussion of nation states is continued next week, in the next Brave New World program, when the discussion with Professor Breuilly turns to discussing the present day Nation state.
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