Liah Greenfeld was born in Russia in 1954 and relocated to Israel with her parents in 1972. Upon the publication of Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (Harvard University Press, 1992), she emerged as a preeminent authority on nationalism, a distinction reinforced by the publication of The Spirit of Capitalism: Nationalism and Economic Growth (Harvard University Press, 2001; Donald Kagan Best Book in European History Prize).
Unlike most modernists who assert that nationalism is a product of modernity, Greenfeld argues that rather modernity is a product of nationalism. She believes that nationalism is what prompted the transformation from old society to modern society. Greenfeld asserts that one of the defining characteristics of modernity is the division of territory into nations. This is a “realization of nationalist imagination”. (Greenfeld, 1992: 487).
According to Greenfeld, national identity is acquired when all citizens identify as members of a nation. This national identity blurs the lines of class and elevates everyone’s status. Everyone is considered equal. She also draws strong ties between nationalism and democracy as they are both defined by the existence of a sovereign people. In her view, the two are intertwined; “democracy was born with the sense of nationalism” (Greenfeld, 1992: 10). The two differentiated, however, when “the emphasis in the idea of a nation moved from the sovereign character to the uniqueness of the people, the original equivalence between it and democratic principles were lost” (Greenfeld, 1992: 10). One reason for this, as Greenfeld asserts, could be that democracy is “not exportable”.
Greenfeld states that England was the first nation. This was the first region in which the term “the people” moved beyond defining the elite and spread to encompass all citizens. The transformation in England was prompted by a number of factors, including the Protestant Reformation, when Henry VII broke away from Rome and the Catholic Church, and The English Bible, “and the unprecedented stimulation of literacy” (Greenfeld, 1992: 87). This growing national sentiment continued under the reign of Elizabeth, and by the mid 17th century, a nation had emerged.
Greenfeld has also done extensive research on the relationship between nationalism and the economy. The Spirit of Capitalism answers a fundamental question of economics, a question neither economists nor economic historians have been able to answer: what are the reasons (rather than just the conditions) for sustained economic growth? Taking her title from Max Weber’s famous study on the same subject, Liah Greenfeld focuses on the problem of motivation behind the epochal change in behavior, which from the sixteenth century on has reoriented one economy after another from subsistence to profit, transforming the nature of economic activity.
Greenfeld argues that the motivation, or “spirit,” behind the modern, growth-oriented economy was not the liberation of the “rational economic actor,” but rather nationalism. Nationalism committed masses of people to an endless race for national prestige and thus brought into being the phenomenon of economic competitiveness.
In Nationalism and the Mind, Greenfeld defines Anomie, which could be translated as “normalessness”, as a built-in feature of modernity, and could produce “a sense of disorientation, of uncertainty as to one’s place in society, and therefore as to one’s identity” (Greenfeld 2005, 332). Therefore she proposed that “Nationalism inhibits the formation and normal functioning of the human mind” (Greenfeld 2005, 333), because nationalism as a modern culture has a presupposition of fundamental equality of national membership, popular sovereignty and focuses on anomic culture, which cannot provide people with a clear sense of defined and stable self-identity, thus causing “socially paralyzing mental disorders” (Greenfeld 2005, 340).
Greenfeld states that the EU is an instrumental union, and that member countries use it as a tool to promote its own national interest. The European states need to unite to compete effectively against strong market such as USA and China. Capitalistic blocs are not inevitable if nations can compete individually. For example, in 2005 the French and Dutch vetoed the ratification of the European Constitutional Treaty. Those two countries rejected the treaty because the plan indicated further European integration on the political field. There was a possibility to lose a degree of sovereignty. The European countries possess a strong sense of nationalism, which prompted them to veto the treaty.
- Greenfeld emphasises the superficial nature of the division created by status and class. Do you think having a shared national identity blurs the line of status and class? Are national identities inherently stronger?
- “The United States of the World, which will perhaps exist in the future, with sovereignty vested in the population, and the various segments of the latter regarded as equal, would be a nation in the strict sense of the word within the framework of nationalism” (Greenfeld 1992, p.7-8). Do you agree? Will “United States of the World” ever exist?
- Is democracy exportable to other nations? Is it something that is inherent to certain nations but alien to others? Is nationalism a factor in this distinction?