Dignity From the Nation
Greenfeld believes that an important factor in understanding the dignity attached with belonging to a nation, is the semantic change of the word ‘nation’. Starting as a derogatory word for non-Roman citizens, it evolved into meaning communities of opinion and purpose at French universities to use at Church councils adjudicating church issues, and from here it developed political and cultural meanings, especially individual sovereignty,
Members of this ‘people’ participate in its “superior, elite quality and it is in consequence that a stratified national community is perceived as naturally homogeneous” (Greenfeld 1993:7). The concept of the nation elevated the lower class and gave them a sufficient degree of social mobility as to allow them to be ennobled.
This then leads us to the concept that the “symbolic ennoblement of the populace in nationalism makes membership in the nation, i.e. nationality itself, an honourable, elevated status” (Greenfeld 2005:327). This is thus able to be directly linked in one attaching their sense of identity and self-worth…dignity, to one’s national identity.
Dignity is addictive: once tasted, it is hard to achieve similar levels of happiness without it. It is this convergence of factors that ensures commitment to a national community, and even more so, a sustained and vested individual interest in the overall appearance of the nation’s prestige.
Does this proposed link with dignity suggest underlying causes for nationalist violence and aggression? For instance, can we view the use of violence during the May 2008 riots in South Africa as an example of a previously persecuted group using violence as a ‘state of exception’ against another group?
Nationalism and the Rise of Economic Japan
In “The Spirit of Capitalism” Liah Greenfeld attempts to analyse the causes of economic transformation. Her central thesis is that the reason for the reorientation of economic activity towards growth is the emergence of nationalism. Essentially nationalism is the organizing principle of modernity. She argues that nationalism is a “unique form of social consciousness” and that the emergence of national consciousness is, at its core, fundamentally democratic: “egalitarianism represents the essential principle of the social organization it implies, and popular sovereignty its essential political principle.”
Greenfeld applies a (critical) Weberian analysis to economic transformation, positing that the purpose of Weber’s most famous work ‘The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism’ is to:
“explain the shift in social attitudes to economic activity, and the nature of new attitudes, which, in the then existing conditions of material development, pertaining to the state of markets, financial institutions, technology, population, and agricultural capacity, oriented the economy toward, and were responsible for the definition of, growth as socially desirable, making it a value and thereby promoting its institutionalization.”
In discussing the ideas proposed by Greenfeld, an interesting case study is that of Japan. The Meiji restoration overturned the highly traditional government in 1868. By the mid 1880s the traditional social structure was dismantled and a new order constructed in which industrialization was taking place at breathtaking pace. The ideology of the Meiji restoration, Greenfeld argues, is nationalism.
Nationalism, it is argued, is imported from the West, and was well received due the pervasive condition of status-inconsistency which affected various strata in Japanese society. There is a very interesting study of the disaffection and transformation of the Samurai military class (which was ultimately disbanded) in Greenfeld’s writing . She argues, for example, that the egalitarian ethic of nationalism led to its embrace by this class, as it refocused loyalty on the community and the people, and de-emphasized lineage as the sole source of status.
The Meiji nationalists felt that the prestige of Japan was low – a fact that became clear through interaction with the Western powers. The desire for rapid industrialization and modernization is perhaps best summed up by the declaration of a nationalist leader Ito:
“The aim of our country has been from the very beginning , to attain among the nations of the world the status of a civilized nation and to become a member of the comity of European and American nations which occupy the position of civilized countries. To occupy this comity of nations means to become one of them…Both ruler and ruled should apply their efforts smoothly and harmoniously to preserve tranquility; to elevate the status of the people; to secure the rights and promote the welfare of each individual; and finally, by manifesting abroad the dignity and power of Japan, to secure and maintain her dignity and independence.”
Economic achievement thus becomes a central value in Japanese national consciousness. Greenfeld ultimately argues that this, as the decisive node of Japanese national consciousness, and the economic system remain essentially unaltered today, and that the guiding “spirit” remains. This, she posits, is central to Japans continued economic success on a global scale.
Does Greenfeld’s theory of the role of dignity within nationalism explain the meteoric rise of Japan as an economic power?
Greenfeld identifies C16 England as the original nation and looks to it as the definition of “individualistic civic nationalism”, the form of nationalism to which membership is a consequence of individually exercised sovereignty. Inherent in this definition are the rights of the individual as enshrined in Enlightenment thought; reason defined humanity, individual consciousness was autonomous, civic liberty an entitlement and the choice between alternatives a matter for personal reasoning. Much as this is understood to have been symptomatic of English nationalism, Greenfeld sees other later nationalisms as having been imported. Russia, for example, modelled their own nationalism after Western European patterns, leading to a form in which inferiority – or ressentiment – is a fundamental ingredient. Equally important to this model is a shared sense of dislocation from the existing structure – anomie; “dissatisfaction with the traditional identity reflected a fundamental inconsistency between the definition of social order it expressed and the experience of the involved actors”.
International population movements and the negative impact they are perceived as having on homogeneously defined nationalisms have been accorded increasing attention across various fields. How these movements will contribute to the changing shapes of nationalisms could be examined from Greenfeld’s perspective:
Do the often limited rights accorded to migrants entitle them as national members to demand structural change?
Are new forms of nationalism being imported by or generated amongst migrant communities?
What impact might migrants have on shaping national identities?
Madness and Modernity?
Greenfeld proposes that modern culture has an impact on three distinctly human faculties: identity, will and symbolic imagination. Identity is the key to positioning ourselves within our social world and being able to gauge our social position relative to others. Symbolic imagination gives humans the ability to judge and react accordingly to given situations, where deciphering symbolic gestures such as facial expressions or body language is particularly important. Finally, will gives us the ability to override our natural impulses to actually enforce the correct symbolic responses, to modify our behaviour to that appropriate to the given situation.
Greenfeld argues that modern society presents individuals with such a bewildering array of choice and mobility that it ”inhibits the formation and normal functioning of the human mind”. Through the rise of modernity we are now able to achieve a far wider range of social identities, whether these relate to money, career or love. This is ”made possible by the egalitarianism of nationalism and the system of stratification it creates.”. In a society where anything is possible, however, frustration of these ambitions can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety and depression, as our attempts to define ourselves using identity, symbolic imagination and will fail. This is summarised as resulting in an increase of mental disorders throughout the ”most prosperous and freest nations”. She concludes:
”If I am right, deeper, more accurate understanding of nationalism may be the key to the treatment of ever-spreading mental disorders which have called modern psychiatry and clinical psychology into being and which modern psychiatry and clinical psychology have been trying in vain to cure – more than that, a deeper, more accurate understanding of nationalism may be the key to the very problem of happiness and unhappiness.”
Whilst a compelling narrative to account for the rise of mental illnesses amongst Western societies, do we agree with her theory of nationalism as the root cause of the problem, as well as the potential source of the solution?
For an article examining historical sociological perspectives on mental illness:
And for a brief article on the rise of mental illness in the UK (strangely concentrating on the economic ramifications) see below. Particularly the map showing distribution of mental illness within the UK: