Ernest Gellner’s work on nationalism is less known than Benedict Anderson’s “Imagined Community” but, as Benedict himself admits, it is an important one in the field of nationalism studies. This summary is not perfect so you should get the book and read it. He has a talent of explaining complex ideas with simple words. It is short, rich. Enjoy!
For Gellner, the rise of nationalism is connected to the transformation of an agro-literate society in Europe to an industrialized one. Industrialization changed the face of society from being stable to being mobile and dynamic; from inherently unequal to egalitarian, which enabled individuals to climb up and down the socio-economic ladder. Instead of being specialized in one profession for life, individuals in such a society changed vocations a few times during their careers; beyond being literate and numerate, they needed to communicate with strangers via idioms and symbols; moved from controlling machines to controlling meaning. The creation of such a society was a must to sustain the growth and innovation that the industrial age required. Creating such society required a unified, generic and centralized education. Thus, the state established a monopoly on education which was, perhaps, even more important than having monopoly on violence.
For any community to form, including those based on national loyalty, will and coercion are necessary. Industrialization provided the necessary condition for forming a national community. The industrial state, through its monopoly of education, created an inclusive all-educated high culture. In other words, it adjusted the political and cultural boundaries. The birth of nations came as a result of these adjustments, which made the community culturally more homogeneous and brought it under the strongest political unit – the state.
For Gellner, nationalism is not the awakening of natural, God-given and latent force. That’s a myth he says. To collect similar atomized cultural units under one roof and create a nation, nationalisms defined the shared culture by selectively refereeing to folk, factually contested historical events and defined them against the “other”; the national image they presented was always positive. In this process of homogenization, the “other” is excluded, eliminated, assimilated, exterminated, etc.
Before concluding, a quick reference on nationalism’s weakness, future and the pitfalls of its theories must be made. Nationalism is not as formidable as we might think, Gellner argues. For instance, there are much more cultures (here defined mainly through vernacular languages) that do not aspire a nation-state as opposed to those which live in one, or seek one. Ultimately, age of nationalism, is one phase of human development and it will pass, though we can say that it will be there for some time.
Finally, the sociologist warns us to be open about his presentation of nationalism. At the end, things are not that simple. Industrial societies are only relatively egalitarian or, he observes, in some parts of the world, pre and modern structures coexist and nationalisms in these places take different forms.