Social media and the end of nationalism as we know it

 
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By Osama Diab

As social media strip away the space and time separating like-minded people, is the notion of “nationalism” becoming too small for us?

Friday 8 June 2012

Not in the very distant past, the media and media platforms were mostly specific to individual countries, and the interactivity and communicativeness of traditional media was very minimal. Unlike social media, people from two ends of the world were unable to communicate directly and form communities using traditional media, such as radio or TV. The rise of social media has given rise to virtual spaces in which virtual communities can be formed and flourish. But what effect will this have on actual physical spaces and communities that are based on geographical proximity?

The idea of cosmopolitanism can be traced back thousands of years at least to the time of ancient Greek philosophy. However, historically, cosmopolitanism was confined to philosophy and was limited to haughty debate among philosophers, sociologists and academics. This might be changing now, and due to the renewed interest in globalisation, cosmopolitanism might find its way to the grassroots level. Ulrich Beck, the German sociologist argues that “[cosmopolitanism] has left the realm of philosophical castles in the air and has entered reality”.

Nationalism, based on geography, wouldn’t have been possible if it had not been for the mass media. Benedict Anderson, the Irish scholar, argues that print-capitalism laid the bases for national consciousness by creating “mechanically reproduced print-langauges capable of dissemination through the market”. Today, the world is becoming more compressed in terms of time and space, crushed by faster transportation and communication, and the closing of distances this involves. When we take into consideration the speed at which data travels, time and space actually almost completely collapse.

Will our unprecedented ability to communicate through time and space increase the scope of imagined “national” communities? If nationalism in essence is the ability to identify and belong to a people in a particular geographical area, what are the factors that determine the size and the scope of this area of community?

Benedict Anderson famously argues in his book Imagined Communities that speakers of the different variety of English, French, and Spanish who would often find it difficult to understand one another, became able to communicate and understand through print and paper. They then became aware of the other similar people in their ‘langauge-field’, forming the so-called imagined communities. Driven by the capitalists’ desire to enlarge markets, they pushed out the boundaries of their community to form larger communities.

Anderson links the emergence of nationalist ideologies with the emergence of print capitalism. According to Anderson’s theory, the limit of which people will imagine a community is, at least, partially dependent on the media they share and the interest of media owners (the capitalists) in unifying factors, such as language, in order to get a larger amount of people to consume their products. In this process, many minority languages and cultures might be suppressed, but nevertheless, bridges of understanding and empathy are arguably built. So what happens when the media cross national boundaries to cover the whole globe and the interests of capitalists becomes transnational?

In a similar manner to how profit-driven capitalism encouraged the “assembly”, or convergence, of vernaculars into a single language, enabling people identify with a larger community for the first time, the modern multinational corporation and global media encourages people to “learn” a global language. This phenomenon is like Anderson’s print-capitalism but on a much larger scale.

Kenichi Ohmae, the Japanese corporate strategist, states that global firms must share a common language and that mother country identity must give way to corporate identity. The emergence of English as a global lingua franca inevitably intensifies the level of communication and shared cultural experiences between people from different parts of the world at an unprecedented rate.

Ulf Hannerz, the Swedish social anthropologist, argues that in order for a transnational corporation to operate in a global world, it must not have ties with any particular location and develop a more decentralised approach by getting rid of the central headquarters mentality. The global forward-looking firms must create a system of values to be shared by company managers regardless of their backgrounds or whereabouts to replace “the glue nation-based orientation once provided”.

This is why in multinational or transnational corporations, who in some cases, are bigger, wealthier and more powerful than states, the role of the human resource management is to create a culture and identity for the company which will develop a feeling of loyalty similar to that citizens feel towards a state. In this model, the corporation an employee works for becomes part of their identity in what Hannerz calls the “transnational source of identity”. The same applies to social and political movements which share the same cause. The “we are the 99%” slogan is mostly associated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, but was used in many other Occupy camps around the world.

Paradoxically, the very regime that created and was the engine behind globalised free trade is now being fought and criticised using the tools and weapons it created. If we take Occupy activists from two different countries as an example, they would probably communicate and coordinate in English using Google Mail, Facebook or Skype and transfer money through an HSBC account and they might even book a conference hall in the Hilton for their annual meeting. This makes the anti-globalisation movement quite globalised and highly reliant on transnational corporate brands to express its anti-corporate sentiments.

It seems inevitable that we, and more certainly future generations, will be less likely to identify ourselves primarily in terms of a narrow geographical areas, and more likely to associate along more cosmopolitan lines, according to political or cultural identity, for example. This will require a new approach to studying these phenomena such as Beck’s “cosmopolitan sociology”.

It might be useful here to draw on Raymond Williams theory of the three cultural moments: dominant, emergent and residual. In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

Cosmopolitanism is no longer a naïve and rosy vision that the world will become more pacifistic and a better place to live, but rather a perception of the self where national borders play a less significant role in the modern person’s identity, or rather multiple identities. It is also useful not to view cosmopolitanism and nationalism as conflicting and mutually exclusive. Human beings are capable of ‘hosting’ multiple identities. Therefore, the growth in cosmopolitanism doesn’t instantly suggest a decline in nationalism, but would just add a new layer of empathy which is the ‘cosmo’, or the globe, that wasn’t commonplace before due to the relative limitation in means of transport and communication.

It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity. An Egyptian Marxist might be able to identify more with an Italian Marxist than with a ‘fellow’ Egyptian Islamist. Amid the increasing importance and impact of virtual places, geographic spaces will begin to face some serious competition. Sharing your concerns with someone thousands miles away from you while thinking of your next door neighbour as a stranger might be an increasing phenomenon in the near future.

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  • Christendom and Dar al Islam are constructed meta-identities which precede both nationalism and capitalism. Both arose out of a common historical circumstance : a rapidly expanding people, overwhelms the less-dynamic neighbors, and needs to incorporate the newly-conquered peoples into the conquerors systems of control. In the early stages, control is tentative and approximate. As populations grow and become fixed in place, as governments become more ambitious, as bureaucratic methods become more permanent and efficient, the Nobodies who live in Outer Nowhere become more directly supervised by a central authority. The central authority wants taxes and soldiers, in concrete terms. Greater territory, greater control equals more taxes and  more soldiers.That is the logic of the system. 

    It would be more true to say that centralizing authority caused the development of large-scale capitalism, than the reverse. 

     The development of mass media posed, poses new threats and new opportunities for centralized bureaucratic states. In general, I’m more concerned with the erosion of privacy, than I am with the opportunity to shout across the abyss.

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  • Christian

    Yeah that does round it up. Funny with this ‘virtual’ facsimile of everything from social life to business life, and even virtual research environments. I think it will only ever augment, never substitute anything. Look at the hype with ‘virtual meetings’ and teleconferencing, touted as the solution to meeting physically, saving time, money … and the environment. But where are we now. More conferences and congresses than ever … So while social media may contort tribalism, nationalism etc, I doubt it will ever replace true physical kinship. We’re one of the warm and cuddly mammals, we need the contact!!  (-:   

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  • Osama Diab

    True Christian. I just meant “tribe” in the traditional sense — a community-based sense of kinship. However, I do imply that it’s likely a form of “virtual tribalism” might emerge and replace traditional tribalism/nationalism. “It is likely that divisions, conflicts, and differences will remain but they will gradually become less along national lines and more across lines which are political, religious, ideological, etc. Empathy, accordingly, might become less based on geographical proximity but rather on ideological proximity.”

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  • Christian

    Interesting stuff Osama.
    –In the age of global de-territorialised media, we could perhaps define cosmopolitanism as the emergent, nationalism as the dominant and tribalism as the residual. Just as the spread of nationalism didn’t completely stamp out tribalism, the collapse of national psychological barriers and the rise of cosmopolitanism will also not abolish nationalism overnight.

    You might equally argue tribalism will become dominant … tribalism at least under the new borderless communities paradigm (marxists in Italy and Egypt, and elswhere as a tribe). Tribe is just an identifier, no? A cultural, idealogical, racial glue holding a group together.  

     

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