Imagined Communities in Review: A Postcolonial and Modern Revisitation

 Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism is one of the most celebrated and debated intellectual works of the 20th century. In this seminal piece, Anderson lays out his own theoretical definition of the nation, which is informed by the work of other thinkers such as Renan and Gellner, as well as a robust analysis of modern history centered on the Americas, Europe and several colonial territories. Having concluded that the nation is, as the title suggests, imagined, Anderson examines the cultural process of its creation. In doing so, he hopes to clarify why such abstract denominations of humanity can command such profound emotional followings and inspire sacrifice as they do.

    There are several key features of Anderson’s definition that contrast with other theorists’ understandings of nationality. His particular theory of nationalism is centered around the contention that the nation is “an imagined political community– and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” He considers nations ‘limited’ because no matter how large, they are always defined as finite and exclusive, in relation to others that lie beyond their perceived boundaries. ‘Sovereign’ has to do the with the historical definition of nations as a departure from other forms of dominion, principally the religious hold of the Catholic Church over European kingdoms. The use of the term ‘community’ is derived from Anderson’s view of the nation as a “deep, horizontal comradeship” which commands an emotional allegiance from those who belong to it.

In this understanding of the nation, Anderson seeks to explain its seemingly paradoxical nature, which he describes as “the objective modernity of nations to the historian’s eye vs. their subjective antiquity in the eyes of nationalists” and “the political power of nationalisms vs. their philosophical poverty and even incoherence.” He often refers to the nation as a ‘cultural artefact’ which is capable of changing over time and being transposed across distance. Ultimately Anderson diverges from other prominent scholars and summarizes his thesis in the claim that “the creation of these artefacts towards the end of the eighteenth century was the spontaneous distillation of a complex ‘crossing’ of discrete historical forces; but that, once created, they became ‘modular,’ capable of being transplanted […] to a great variety of social terrains.” Anderson spends the remainder of the text explaining the role of these historical forces and how they intersected in various cases, resulting in the multitude of mature and emerging nationalities present in the modern world. He focuses on the development of vernacular languages that wrested power from elites, and print-as-commodity facilitating the spread of information and notions of simultaneity, as key historical forces which intersected to spark the development of nation-states.

    To better understand the reasoning behind Anderson’s convictions about nationalism, it is informative to contextualize Imagine Communities in the time period during which it was produced. As Anderson’s work was first published in 1983, there was a sizable sample of regional decolonization movements in the preceding fifty years that had resulted in the formation of new African and Asian nations. This left the major powers with a host of new states to contend with, especially as the Cold War’s bipolar international system led into the negotiation of alliances and fortification. Thinkers such as Anderson wrote for an intellectual audience– in his case, the English intelligentsia– who sought to inform their opinions about foreign policy in a theoretical rather than strategic decision-making capacity. In short, they were the educated non-military elite with time for cerebral reflection on the historical roots of revolutions seen in the paper.

Marxism was also a topic of more practical scholarly discussion during the Cold War period; particularly its hotly contested claim that capitalist class struggle was the root of all modern war. This would logically preclude the possibility of warfare between Marxist states. Why, then, did the Red Army often find itself at war with revolutionary ethnic minorities of its own realm? Such internal strife seemed to suggest that there was some other, more visceral force at work than a shared class struggle that unifies the transnational Marxism. Anderson’s theory applied to this question provides a far more convincing alternative, explaining the Soviet Bloc’s membership as a projection of an imagined Russian cultural identity over surrounding nationalities, rather than a universalist Marxist ideology. Given the eventual worsening of the subdivisions of the Soviet Union, and continual splintering over ethnoracial lines, nationalism seems to have been at the root of conflict even within (not just between) the bipolar system’s two major players.

    A major strength of how Anderson supports his theory of nationalism is that he credibly demonstrates an understanding of social structures in the diverse areas and periods he writes about. Anderson uses this base of knowledge to broaden the discussion of nationalism beyond the Eurocentric view of other authorities on the subject. One of his most compelling and unique additions to the study of nationalism is the claim that North and South American Creoles were the first pioneers of the imagined community, providing a model for the development of the nation which was later paralleled in the European cultural revolutions of the 19th century. His knowledge of Spanish American demographic nuances and early nationalist rhetoric from Mexico suggest that Anderson has a level of insight which Europe-focused provincialism has missed by viewing early America as a monolithic colonial frontier. Drawing heavily on firsthand accounts by Jesuit missionaries, as well as early examples of vernacular journalism that united disparate areas of Spanish America, Anderson effectively captures popular sentiments that suggest a deep identification with a shared Creole ancestry.

Though he does well to acknowledge the agency of postcolonial territories in developing national identities via language, print capitalism and education, the Englishman Anderson occasionally falls into the trap of ignoring his own nation’s historical tendency to suppress such efforts. In many cases, colonies were not simply awaiting the organic alignment of factors to sprout nationalist ideology, but were victim to deliberate national suppression by their imperial conquerors. Particularly in Chapter 5, where he uses the development of Ireland as a case study, Anderson conveniently glosses over the role that the English played in attempting to eradicate Irish nationalism through colonial homogenization. He paints this as more of an inadvertent byproduct of English nationality being established through language. But in “The Politics of the Irish Language,” NYU’s Sean Cahill highlights the historic importance of Gaelic as a politically symbolic issue of Ireland’s claim to nationhood, and forced Anglicanization as a tactic of English suppression. Banning Gaelic language instruction in public education, as well as targeting Gaelic activists in internment, is a clear case of English hegemony combating the vernacular linguistic aspect of nationalism– which Anderson himself emphasizes earlier in the book as a key force in Western European nations’ individuation from a larger body, in that case the Catholic Church.

    Imagined Communities’ publication has prompted a wide variety of reactions, ranging from theoretical critiques to case studies of emerging imagined national identities.

In Itzigsohn and vom Hau’s “Unfinished Imagined Communities: States, Social Movements, And Nationalism in Latin America,” the sociology researchers use Anderson’s model to analyze trajectories in the development of postcolonial Latin American nations, giving particular attention to the role of modernization. The article recognizes Anderson for filling a gap in the literature regarding nationalism by exploring its origins in the aforementioned chapter on Creole nationalism. “Most theories of nationalism are grounded in European case studies. One of the few notable exceptions is Benedict Anderson’s highly acclaimed Imagined Communities, which argues that early nineteenth-century “creole pioneers” invented nations in the struggle for Independence from Spain, thereby establishing a “blueprint” for nationalism around the globe.”The article also highlights key criticisms that Imagined Communities received from the academic community. Foremost among these is the postmodern view that Anderson mainly focuses on the intellectual elite, failing to fully account for the role of ‘subaltern’ actors in the development of Creole national identity. Nevertheless, the study largely confirms the validity of his analysis concerning Latin-American nations’ development, even as they progressed into the early 20th century.

In a 2006 piece published in the London Review of Books, T.J. Clark poses the question of how technological developments of modernity might influence the formation or reformation of imagined communities since Anderson’s initial publication. He proposes that new ‘technics of representation’ might play a role in reshaping or even subverting established national identities across the world. Clark describes the rapid expansion of visual media such as television as having a potential impact in the development of new transnational citizenries, likening the impact of ‘screen capitalism’ to that of the advent of print capitalism in Anderson’s argument. Interestingly, it is unclear whether he believes modernization has resulting in new nationalisms or the rehashing of old ones, as the main example he uses is religious in nature. “It seems to me that a complex rejigging of the balance of forces between nation and ummah, nation and congregation, nation and jihad, nation and chosen people, is underway in many parts of the world – and not only under the banner of Islam. And this has something to do with the new opportunities offered by screen capitalism.” He later states more explicitly the relevance of Imagined Communities and the parallels to print capitalism in modern technology’s impact: “A shuffling and grating of imagined communities is taking place. And this is connected, as I say, with the arrival of new technics of representation. Imagined Communities gives us the beginning of a way to think about just such matters, in its treatment of the effect of print capitalism on the day-to-day imagining of those things called ‘languages’, and its reflections on the role of the newspaper and the novel.” Clark makes a compelling argument that even as new modes of cultural expression and communication (‘technics of representation’) have developed, Anderson provides a historical model that is suggestive of their implications for present-day nations.

At a point in history where liberal internationalism has fallen out of favor and perceptions of national identity are again the focus of domestic politics, it is critical for academics to have a coherent explanation for the phenomenon of nationality. Anderson adds to this conversation by providing an exhaustive theory, grounded in multiple national histories and extraordinarily deep evidence, that pushes back on the primordialist viewpoint. Most importantly, he reorients the entire debate by explaining nationalism as a human construction centered around often-shaky perceptions of a shared past. Thus, he shows nationalism not to be uniquely modern nor rooted firmly in the past; rather, it resides in present reimaginings of a cultural past, which become more important to nationalists than the actual events which transpired.

Considering the significant political power that nationalist agendas still command in major states, Imagined Communities is surely relevant to the current world. But perhaps it needs to be revised in light of new levels of global interconnectivity. Humanity has developed technologies that make geography less relevant and language more universal, allowing for the conception of communities Anderson could not have anticipated in 1983. To build on his work, further research on nationalism in the modern age should seek to incorporate developments such as Clark’s ‘screen capitalism’ and, in some cases, lingering disputes over language. Newly produced works dealing with the EU or USA might seek to address the question: if Anderson correctly characterizes the nation as a mutable but finite category, what developments could prompt today’s nationalist ideologues to tighten or expand their definitions of national belonging?

Bibliography

Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of

Nationalism. New York: Verso, 2016.

 

Cahill, Sean. 2007. “The Politics Of The Irish Language”. New York University.

https://as.nyu.edu/content/dam/nyu-as/irelandHouse/documents/0111-0126_PoliticsOfTheIrishLanguage.pdf.

 

Clark, T.J. 2006. “In A Pomegranate Chandelier: Benedict Anderson”. London Review Of Books.

https://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n18/tj-clark/in-a-pomegranate-chandelier.

 

Itzigsohn, José, and Matthias vom Hau. 2006. “Unfinished Imagined Communities: States,

Social Movements, And Nationalism in Latin America”. Theory And Society 35 (2): 193-212. doi:10.1007/s11186-006-9001-1.

-Omar Essa

Extreme ideologies on race collide at Trinity College

Extreme ideologies on race collide at Trinity College
Trinity College (Al Ferreira / UGC)

Not historically known for campus unrest, Trinity College finds itself thrust in the middle of an ideological clash over race that has brought unwanted national attention to the Hartford institution as it tries to move beyond its preppy label.

The controversy revolves around a pair of professors — one for tweeting that “whiteness is terrorism” and the other for his central role in an emerging alt-right group that’s been accused of giving a platform to white supremacists and to former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka, whose daughter is a Trinity senior.

It comes as the college’s administration has sought to advance diversity and inclusiveness at the liberal arts school of 2,300 students, where a student-led affiliate of the Churchill Institute is seeking recognition as a campus organization. Members of the student Senate will vote on the request to create a Churchill Club Sunday.

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney, president of Trinity College. (Courtesy of Trinity College)

Joanne Berger-Sweeney, the school’s president, addressed the political unrest in a campus-wide letter Wednesday and said Trinity College’s foundation is built on academic freedom and freedom of expression.

“Where else should these debates occur, if not here?” Berger-Sweeney wrote. “These debates help us define our differences and find our common ground, and while they may not always end in a agreement, they advance our understanding of each other.”

Berger-Sweeney was not available for an interview, but a school spokeswoman said “we respect [the Student Government Association’s] process and the considerable pressure they are under with regard to this issue, and therefore it would be inappropriate for anyone in the administration to comment before the vote.”

Gregory Smith, president and chairman of the Churchill Institute.
Gregory Smith, president and chairman of the Churchill Institute.

The 3-year-old Churchill Institute is based in Hartford and led by Gregory B. Smith, a political science professor who has been criticized for referring to on-campus cultural houses for African-American, Asian-American, Latino, Muslim and Jewish students as “tribal enclaves.”

At the same time, longtime sociology professor Johnny Eric Williams…

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Who’s the Jeb of the 2020 Race?

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Matt Flegenheimer, your temporary host. Lisa Lerer is on vacation, beach-reading Mueller report footnotes.

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On paper, I’d hit the candidate jackpot.

It was 2015 — many months before President Trump had won a single vote — and my campaign assignment couldn’t be beat: I would be covering the front-runner. The juggernaut. The one whose name they’d chant at the convention hall.

Ladies and gentlemen, the 45th president of the United States …

So, plans change. But a funny thing has been happening lately in conversations with people close to the 2020 race: Jeb Bush is on the brain again.

Not because he’s running, a prospect with the approximate likelihood of a third term for Grover Cleveland.

But because those who are running may have more in common with Mr. Bush than they’d care to admit.

Across the Democratic primary field, candidates hoping to avoid his fate — high hopes, “low energy,” hard fall — are finding themselves in familiar political minefields, even if they’d rarely agree with Mr. Bush on policy.

The most conspicuous parallel is Joe Biden, who is expected to enter the race this week as a Jeb-style early favorite, carrying high name identification, uncertain base-voter enthusiasm and heaps of baggage into a political moment that may have passed him by.

But there are also less intuitive comparisons.

Like Mr. Bush in his race, Elizabeth Warren is the clear leader on policy in her primary, churning out proposals but struggling to gain traction in early polls. She is also spending heavily on staff, as Mr. Bush did, outpacing any other campaign despite her middling fund-raising numbers. (Mr. Bush ultimately needed to slash salaries and headquarters staff.)

When I noticed a T-shirt available on her website recently — “Warren Has a Plan For That,” it reads — I flashed immediately to one of Mr. Bush’s particularly ill-fated slogans: “Jeb Can Fix It.”

Then again, maybe Beto O’Rourke is the cleaner analogy — another son of a politician who has faced skepticism for his privileged rise and was coaxed into the presidential contest not by any signature ideological cause but because, in Mr. O’Rourke’s words, he was “born to be in it.” (Of course, the silver spoon critique applies more credibly to Mr. Bush, who shares a surname with two presidents, than to the child of a former El Paso County commissioner.)

For more moderate figures in the Democratic field, like John Hickenlooper or Amy Klobuchar, Mr. Bush’s inadvertently prescient warning about the political perils of centrism could also prove relevant. Before entering the 2016 race, Mr. Bush suggested that the eventual Republican nominee would need to avoid being pulled to the partisan extreme to remain palatable…

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Biden Didn’t Rush Into 2020. The Race Came to Him Anyway.

Erin Schaff/The New York Times

For months, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. hewed to a tortoise-like strategy for the 2020 presidential race: Repeatedly delaying his final decision, he hoped to skirt a long stretch of campaigning as a front-runner with a target on his back.

That approach carried risks. Mr. Biden missed the chance to recruit top-level aides, including former Obama advisers, women and people of color, because he had not formalized his campaign. He left urgent questions about his political vulnerabilities lingering, and he has not deployed researchers to review his vast record, because he has not hired any.

Still, the former vice president persisted with his unrushed strategy — until this past week, when it appeared to backfire in striking fashion.

Mr. Biden has faced accusations from multiple women who came forward to complain that his penchant for close physical contact made them feel uneasy. Rival Democrats demanded that he account for his treatment of the women, and President Trump lobbed taunts that offered a preview of how he might attack Mr. Biden in a 2020 general election.

It was a multiday crisis that seemed entirely foreseeable, given that Mr. Biden’s physical touching occurred over many years, often in public. But despite almost five decades in the political arena, Mr. Biden, 76, did not have an agile, fully staffed campaign in place to confront it.

He issued three statements and one online video attempting to explain his conduct, only to joke about the issue in a speech to a union conference Friday. Afterward, he gave an ambivalent response to reporters who asked if he was sorry, acknowledging that he would have to change his behavior but apologizing only for the fact that he “didn’t understand more” about the implications of his conduct.

Mr. Biden showed no evident regret about his wait-and-wait-some-more strategy, explaining coyly that he would “give everybody else their day, then I get a shot.”

But Mr. Biden’s eventual announcement now seems fated to fall in the shadow of the recent allegations and the progressive concerns he has so far declined to address. Far from remaining above the fray, Mr. Biden will enter the campaign as bruised as any of the 16 other candidates already in the race.

“They’re in this never-never land right now,” said David Plouffe, the former strategist to President Barack Obama’s campaign, “because they’re being treated by the outside world like they’re in the race full speed and they’re not. That’s a really tough place to be.”

[Sign up for our politics newsletter and join the conversation around the 2020 presidential race.]

Mr. Plouffe cautioned that Mr. Biden’s initial difficulties could all mean very little should the former vice president enjoy a successful start when he formally enters the race.

Indeed, amid the week’s chaos, Mr. Biden for the first time took several swift steps toward becoming a candidate: His allies have been told to expect an announcement after Easter and the former vice president was sighted on Thursday in Scranton, Pa., apparently recording a video at his childhood home there. And Mr. Biden has secured the services of Mark Putnam, a Democratic ad maker known for crafting gripping, cinematic commercials, according to people familiar with the decision. (Mr. Putnam declined to comment.)

Mr. Biden has used his time on the sideline to some advantage. Aides have put him through so-called murder board sessions on his vulnerabilities and compiled documents detailing his accomplishments and weaknesses. His likely campaign manager, Greg Schultz, has organized now-weekly conference calls with future staff members.

But if the attacks from Mr. Trump and his allies illustrated that Republicans are worried about facing Mr. Biden, the controversy this past week has also shined a light on the risks Democrats would be taking in nominating him — and not just because of his recent problems.

The uneven response to the women’s accusations capped a four-month stretch in which Mr. Biden has labored to expand his core group of older, mostly white advisers; failed to defuse the political equivalent of ticking time bombs relating to race and gender that await his entry in the race; and delayed a campaign that will have considerable ground to make up organizationally, financially and technologically.

Even some…

In crowded Dallas mayor’s race, police issues take center stage

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For the first time in nearly a decade, the police department has taken a central role in the Dallas mayoral race.

In forums, ads and other venues, nearly all of the nine candidates running for mayor have highlighted plans to fix the shrinking department, bolster a shaky pension fund and speed up rising response times.

Most have said higher police pay — even more than the raises officers just received months ago — is needed, although it’s unclear where the city would get the money or even if they could. Some also say City Hall needs new incentives to entice and retain officers — or even a new police academy building. And a few want to explore ways to boost the first responders’ pension system, even if it means new debt.

Dallas political strategist Clayton P. Henry — who is working on local elections but not the mayor’s race — said that crime is regularly a top concern in local municipal elections.

But whichever candidate wins will have to confront a different and more dire situation than Mayor Mike Rawlings faced on his first day in office. When Henry consulted on former Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle’s campaign against Rawlings, a businessman, in 2011, the recession had turned the focus away from public safety and toward economic development.

“Back then, our crime rate had dropped. We had some good years. People felt pretty good about that,” Henry said.

Kunkle declined to comment directly on the police department’s current state and the mayoral race. But he said today’s issues seem far more pressing than during his mayoral run, during which he “can’t recall” police issues playing a major part in his campaign.

Race for the public safety mantle

This year’s contenders have tried to cast themselves as the public safety candidate in the nonpartisan race. Some tried to get creative, offering solutions — at times vague ones — to dig up millions in the budget for cops.

But those efforts could be at least partially stymied if the Legislature passes restrictions on local property tax revenue. The police department is still the single-largest general revenue budget item in Dallas, eating up about $486 million of the $1.3 billion discretionary budget this fiscal year.

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, whose father was a police officer, said if elected mayor, he wants to bolster police staffing, secure the police officer pension and improve morale.

“We need to constantly be monitoring the market and be willing to move our salary upwards when we have to,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he plans to pay for improvements for police by growing southern Dallas — which was also a priority for Rawlings — through business developments to add to the city’s tax base.

“Stuff that doesn’t exist today, it needs to exist tomorrow so there’s new stuff to tax,” Johnson said. “We need to expand the tax base that way.”

Lynn McBee, a nonprofit CEO, said the city can’t grow its way into funding public safety. Instead, she said, if public safety becomes a priority, then growth will follow.

McBee wants to use hotel-occupancy tax revenue that is spent on VisitDallas to pay for arts expenditures. Doing so could free up general fund revenue for public safety, she said. And McBee said she hopes to consider privatizing DFW International Airport to help create a public safety fund.

“We are going to have to do things that are not business as usual,” McBee said.

Former Republican state Rep. Jason Villalba, who enjoyed police support in the Legislature, called public safety his “No. 1 priority.” He proposed a plan that includes an increase in starting police pay to $65,000, improved healthcare benefits and retention bonuses. He is also open to pension-obligation bonds — a somewhat risky bet on receiving investment returns that beat the interest rate on the debt — to help bolster the pension fund. (Rawlings opposed the use of those bonds, which were used to…

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The Morning Joe panel remembers former Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the longest-serving member of Congress, who died this week at age 92. The panel also remembers Frank Robinson, the first African-American manager in the MLB.
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