Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities

by | 25 Apr 2023

KEY CONCEPT

Benedict Anderson’s seminal work Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism from 1983 is one of the most important accounts of the historical rise and development of nationalism. Its basic insight and argument is that nations are not ancient communities united by history, blood, language, culture and/or territory, as nationalists often claim, but the distinctly modern imagination of a given state’s population as constituting such an originary community produced by nationalism.

Anderson explained that nations must be understood as imagined communities because they are simply too large for all of their members to actually know one another. It is therefore only possible for its members to imagine that they have a relationship with all other members of the nation across time and space. Of course, the fact that the nation is imagined does not make it any less real. Nations are very real — real enough that people are prepared to kill and die for them as Anderson pointed out.

Nationalism filled the political and existential void that arose after the decline of the great religious communities. In their prime, Latin Christendom and the Muslim Ummah incorporated vast territories and several peoples in a single community united by a common (religious) perception of the world and a sacred language (Latin or classical Arabic), which local elites also used to communicate among themselves. These grand religious communities were organized into smaller political units, where kings ruled over ethnically diverse and linguistically fragmented populations with the blessing of god and/or his religious representatives on earth. 

It was the crisis and decline of this system that paved the way for the rise of nationalism in the latter half of the eighteenth century. But it didn’t happen by itself. The emergence of nationalism was a product of specific historical circumstances and actors. The historical circumstances Anderson highlighted was the interaction of capitalism and the development of printing technology, which resulted in the production of large quantities of books and newspapers, which contributed to the development and spread of common ideas – and which eventually came to form the foundation for the imagination of the national community.

The circulation of books and newspapers made it possible for scattered individuals to relate to each other and develop a common awareness of events, narratives and ideas at more or less the same time – typically within the framework of a certain territory and group. The explicitly and implicitly patriotic literature gradually spread the notion of a specific national community, which formed the basis of the popular breakthrough of nationalism.

The origin and development of nationalism

Andersons identified the colonies of the “New World” in the Americas as the birthplace of modern nationalism. According to Anderson, it was the exploitation of the colonies by the metropole, combined with discrimination of foreign-born officials within the colonial apparatus, that provided the impetus for local elites to begin to pursue independence. In order to realize such projects, however, it was necessary to unite the population and confront the metropole. The colonies were already divided into distinct administrative units that were often geographically isolated and which could thus form the starting point for the development of the imagination of national communities in text and speech – and later action.

The political success of North and South American nationalisms became a model that was imitated and further developed across the globe. In Europe especially, increased output of books and newspapers contributed not only to the creation and spread of common ideas, but also to the standardization of different dialects and thereby the creation of national languages, which became a central part of European nationalism. Nationalism was initially often closely linked with liberal, democratic and/or revolutionary tendencies in Europe, where the nation was commonly rhetorically opposed to the monarchs. However, a similar model was also adopted and advanced by some absolutist rulers, who legitimized their dynastic rule through “official nationalisms.” In both cases, the nation was affirmed as the foundation and legitimation of the modern (nation) states that emerged from them. These states actively contributed to building the nation through the promotion of linguistic standardization, national symbols and a narrative about a historically unified community that in most cases had never existed. 

Anderson’s analysis showed that the nation does not preexist nationalism. Rather, the nation is the product of modern nationalism. Contrary to nationalist claims, the nation was not rooted in ancient history and did not arise spontaneously. The nation was the product of decidedly modern political interests and dynamics that took a very specific form but universal form that originated in the Americas and spread across the globe from there. 

Defining the nation

Anderson defined the nation as the product of modern nationalism and “an imagined political community” that he insisted was always “imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The nation was, as I have already suggested, an imagined community insofar as it was impossible for all its members to get to know each other, and this form of community therefore had to be imagined. The nation was moreover imagined as a community, a deep and horizontal fraternity that united all of its members across age, class, colour, creed, gender and race – irrespective of actually existing divisions, inequalities and exploitation.

While nationalism is practically universal, every nationalism imagines its particular nation to be unique and distinct from all others. As such, the nation is consistently imagined as a limited form of community (unlike, for instance, earlier religious communities that almost always aspired to universality) delimited by other nations; even though its actual borders are often quite elastic in practice. Finally, the nation is imagined as being sovereign, that is to say, it is conceived as the highest legitimate political authority within the political community, which finds its clearest expression in the form of the modern sovereign (nation) state.

The nation as secular religion

One of the reasons for the spread and persistence of nationalism, according to Anderson, is to be found in the existential dimension of nationalism – a dimension that most other political ideologies neglect. Human beings have always confronted uncertainty, adversity and ultimately their own finitude. The great religions managed to alleviate the pressure of these uncertainties through guarantees of a cosmological order and the promise of an afterlife.

But after the pluralization and gradual collapse of these religious systems, the onset of secularization and the Enlightenment, an existential void opened, which nationalism came to fill. Nationalism, like religion, inscribes the individual within a larger historical and social context that transcended its individual members. In this way, the notion of the nation functions as a secular substitute for religion.

That perspective may also help to explain the continued appeal of nationalism in an age of globalization. Although the sovereignty of nation states is today inscribed within, if not subordinated to global economic processes, it has not waned. If anything, nationalism has only gained traction. In the uncertain and unmanageable world produced by globalization, nationalism’s guarantees of meaning and continuity only becomes more attractive.

Imagining community differently

Anderson generally considered nationalism to be a progressive force. He did not believe that it was inherently tied to xenophobia and racism. And many nationalisms were initially progressive and inclusive projects, particularly the anticolonial national liberation movements of the twentieth century that he followed closely. However, later developments call into question his evaluation of nationalism. Fully developed nationalism is per definition limited to a single people at the expense of others. As such, nationalism is based on exclusion and a clear hierarchy, which, during the twentieth century, has been increasingly closely associated with chauvinism, xenophobia and war.

Anderson recognized that nationalism is always limited to a particular nation, but at the same time insisted that the notion of the nation demonstrated our ability to identify with people we have never met. He, therefore, rightly, pointed out that nationalism contained an utopian element.

Although one can and should be critical of Anderson’s neglect of the exclusive nature of nationalism, his analysis of the modern origins of nationalism at the same time shows that the delimitation of the nation is an arbitrary historical and relatively new process prompted by the interplay of historical circumstances with specific political projects and interests.

Anderson’s analysis shows that nationalist fantasies of ancient greatness are in fact rooted in modern political projects based on relatively arbitrary geographical and linguistic divisions and political interest. There is no pre-historical or necessary basis for the delineation of our imagined communities. It is therefore also possible to imagine other, more inclusive forms of community based on Anderson’s seminal work – forms of community that may one day move beyond the limitations of the nation state.

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