As Anderson puts it, a nation “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion”. (p. 6)
I consider myself to be British and a part of this nation of Great Britain, although I can never meet all of the 65 million plus inhabitants of these British Isles. I imagine this community – though I will never see it all.
This imagination is a powerful thing. “Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.” (p. 7)
According to Anderson, imagined communities were created because of “print capitalism” – the convergence of capitalism and the rise of the printing press. Books and newspapers were printed in the vernacular to maximize circulation. Anderson states that the first European nation-states were thus formed around their “national print-languages.” Indeed, language is a key factor in the creation of communities – both the demise of Latin and the privileged access and position of the learned elite, and the rise of local vernaculars.
At the same time, ruling dynasties that spread across many countries were in demise, and all but disappeared by the end of the First World War.
This subject of nationalism and imagined communities is particularly interesting in the current context of Brexit – Britain voting to leave the European Union. With mass migration (since 2000 the population of the UK has increased at a faster rate than any time in the previous 90 years) and the loss of sovereignty to a European ruling elite, Britain has voted to leave this grouping of 28 member states and to go it alone. The drive towards a European superstate has been too much for a number of the nation states to bear, and there is, across Europe, a rise in populist, nationalist movements, from UKIP in Britain, to Alternativ fuer Deutschland in Germany and Le Front National in France. The driving force for many in the formation of the European Community (now Union) was to prevent the destructive nationalism of Nazi Germany and the Second World War from ever being repeated in Europe. There is, however, no shared language, no shared culture, no shared symbolism or history among these nations, and the efforts of the ruling elites to bring about ever-increasing political and economic union has resulted in a fracturing and discerption of the unity that such groupings have attempted to create.
The false constructs of monetary and political union are not enough to overcome the stronger bonds of the nation states and the cultural and symbolic history of these nations. The European Union’s insistence on freedom of movement across Europe and the right of any European Union citizen to live and work in any country has resulted in large increases in migration from the poorer to the richer European countries. All of this has had its consequences – not least the resurgence of nationalist movements and emphases.
Anderson’s words are interesting in this respect:
“In an age when it is common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on a near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and often profoundly self-sacrificing love.” (p. 141)
For many in Britain, a construct such as the European Union will never inspire such love and loyalty. There is no shared language and culture and history and symbolism. There is only a new dynasty, distant from the people it rules.
And hence Brexit.