Retro Reviews: Azar Gat with Alexander Yakobson – Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism (2013)

Though military historian Azar Gat wrote Nations: The Long History and Deep Roots of Political Ethnicity and Nationalism, he gives extensive credit to fellow historian Alexander Yakobson for his comments and advice contributed throughout the book. Yakobson also authored the final chapter. I read this book at the recommendation of my former colleague Alex Nowrasteh.

Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism has become the standard defense of nationalism. The trouble is that Hazony’s defense is not very coherent. In a sense, Hazony wrote a book-length version of “it’s not about race.” Hazony also struggles to say what nationalism might be about instead. Hazony also argues that nationalism is a recent phenomenon. After all, nations as we know them today have only been around for a few centuries.

Gat’s two main arguments cause problems for Yazony-style thinkers. One, nationalism is ancient. In fact, the impulses behind it predate our species. They are an inescapable part of the human condition. Two, nationalism is mostly about race. More precisely, it is mostly about ethnicity. Not exclusively, but mostly. Gat uses a broader, boutique definition of ethnicity for the purposes of his discussion, about which more below. But race is an important part of his use of the term. Unlike Hazony, he does not dodge the question.

Gat also does not defend nationalism. Nor is he interested in attacking it, though he is clearly put off by the cultural chauvinism and belligerence that often accompany nationalism, even in relatively peaceful places such as France. Gat instead seeks understanding. What makes nationalists tick? Why do they hold their beliefs? This 2013 book came out before nationalism regained its current voguishness in populist movements around the world. Nations may be a better book for that reason. It provides light without the heat that current events can inspire.

Nationalism predates the concept of nation, which is one reason why Gat focuses on ethnicity. To Gat, nationalism is just one possible way of expressing a deeper impulse. Gat doesn’t cite Adam Smith’s circle of concern theory from The Theory of Moral Sentiments, but his thinking is similar. Basically, people care more about people close to them than they do about people who are socially distant. People care most about themselves. They care very much about close relatives such as children and siblings, though a bit less than about themselves. They care a bit less than that about cousins, aunts, and uncles, still less about second cousins, and so on.

The circle of concern is not an ironclad rule that applies in every single case, as Richard Dawkins convincingly argues in The Selfish Gene—along with any parents who have made sacrifices for their children. But as a guide to understanding human behavior, the circle of concern is a universal tendency.

As Adam Smith put it, a person in England will lose more sleep over losing his little finger than over a hundred thousand people dying in a natural disaster in China. This might sound cold or callous, and it is. Smith himself disapproved of this tendency. But Smith was writing about “is,” not ”should.” Those are separate questions, similar to the difference between fact and opinion. The reason Smith made that point, even though he did not like it, is that it is true.

In fact, growing the circle of concern was one of Smith’s greatest hopes for humanity. In a way, the whole project of modernity and the post-1800 Great Enrichment has consisted of people growing their circles of concern en masse. This moral vision, far more than material gain, was the foundation of Adam Smith’s case for free trade. It is the moral foundation for liberalism as a whole—liberalism in the original, and correct sense of the word.

Where does nationalism enter this picture? Humans have more sophisticated social arrangements than other animals, so our Smithian circle of concern naturally tends to be wider than in other species. For 95 percent of our 200,000-year history as a species, we lived in mostly-related clans of 50 to 150 people or so. But these bands would often slightly overlap with other nearby clans. While these encounters were often far from friendly, they provided a chance for groups to trade and to exchange members through intermarriage. This prevented inbreeding and created opportunities for trade, or for depleted groups to replenish their numbers.

There was an evolutionary advantage to having some social ties between clans between these clans, even if not at the same level as within-clan ties—again, remember the selfish gene. Often these adjacent clans would meet for seasonal feasts, holidays, or religious ceremonies—a form of social evolution that helped to strengthen survival-enhancing bonds.

Evidence from surviving classical sources such as Herodotus, Caesar, and Tacitus, as well as modern anthropologists studying today’s tribal peoples, have all found surprisingly similar pre-national social structures around the world, despite all the local cultural differences.

These networks of 500 to 1,000 people or so are about the outer limit of the number of personal relationships a human is able to maintain. Beyond that, everyone is a stranger. And strangers with no binding ties were as likely to steal food or kidnap mates as they were to trade peacefully. That is why people have an instinct to affirm their in-group and vilify their out-groups—back in the day, it was a survival mechanism.

Natural selection processes chose people whose circle of concern was wide enough to include adjacent groups, not just their everyday in-group. We are their descendants. At the same time, there was no such pressure for the circle of concern to extend wider than this, to perfect strangers—until very recently. Too recently for evolution to catch up to our new social circumstances.

As human societies scaled up into city-states, regional empires, and eventually nation-states, all the different facets of Gat’s concept of ethnicity come into play to progressively greater degrees. Having something in common, such as a language, religion, or a shared hometown or king gave people something in common. It made for an easy mental shortcut to determine if a stranger could be trusted.

Gat argues that language is usually the most important ethnic identifier. If someone does not speak your language, or does so with a noticeable accent, they are clearly other. Religion is another ethnic identifier. Someone who prays to foreign gods probably isn’t from around here. Dress and appearance matter for the same reason. The European divide of beer and butter in the North, versus wine and olive oil in the South, is another point of division. Jews and Muslims took their dietary customs with them throughout their travels, keeping them ethnically apart—in Gat’s sense of the term—from pork-eating peoples regardless of where they settled down. As the comedian George Carlin observed, people will always find excuses not to get along. Just ask sports fans at a Packers-Bears game.

While the genetic view of race is a fairly recent phenomenon, people have also always marked themselves apart by racial appearances. And ironically, the reason we do this is genetic. That means Gat’s argument about ethnicity and nationalism both is and is not genetically based. Race is literally only skin deep. But the reason why people so often fight so fiercely about race and ethnicity has genetic roots that are universal to our species. And race is just one of approximately a million and one ways to express that larger inborn tendency. That is where nationalism comes from—human nature’s in-group-out-group instinct.

Gat combines many of these factors in a very wide concept of ethnicity that varies from place to place and changes over time. Sometime around the invention of agriculture, out of this evolving mush eventually came the concept of fixed political boundaries. These too came about organically, usually in line with ethnic boundaries.

But because different facets of ethnicity have different boundaries, a single geographic line can never accurately reflect ethnic lines. It is literally impossible. Maybe two people with common genetics, language, and territory have a different religion, as in Serbia and Croatia. It is impossible to set a national boundary that fits every facet of ethnic identity, so war ensued. In many places, two or more different ethnicities live enmeshed together in the same cities and neighborhoods. If each wants its own state, how does one create a fair boundary?

These types of questions are difficult, and maybe impossible to answer. And that is one reason why war will likely always be with us. So will other, usually less lethal forms of social division.

This aspect of Gat’s thesis reminds this reader of the virtues of a cultural-national version of Ostrom-style polycentrism. Typical government services such as schools, parks, roads, and police are very different from each other. They each serve different constituencies with different needs and different boundaries. And the city workers providing those services all have their own varying needs. So why are nearly all of these wildly different services administered at just a few fixed levels—city, state, and federal?

This kind of shoehorning often has adverse effects on the quality of those services. Just as more flexible scaling of government services can make them more effective, maybe the same is true of nations. One size clearly does not fit all, as any history book will tell you. Maybe allowing for multiple concurrent sizes of “nation” that adapt over time would allow different people to live together more peacefully.

That, in a nutshell, is Gat’s thesis, plus a few outside applications of it. To illustrate his arguments, Gat spends the last two thirds or so of the book on a survey of world history. He briefly visits nearly every time period on every continent in at least enough detail to show how ethnicity and national sentiments have intertwined, peacefully and not. The same ethnic dynamics were nearly always in play before, during, and after modern nation-states emerged as we know them today. Yakobson’s concluding chapter applies his and Gat’s framework to present-day (in 2013) politics around the world.

Nations is the rare book that makes the reader see the world differently, permanently. It provides a magnifying lens that, when properly held, can bring into focus important details on world history; modern history; why countries exist in the first place; why larger structures such as the European Union (EU) are controversial despite being peaceful; why the EU’s faults are not necessarily random; and on today’s in-progress worldwide political realignment, which is increasingly based around a nationalism-versus-liberalism axis, rather than a socialism-versus-liberalism axis.

Comments are closed.