by Riva Kastoryano

In spite of their variety, theories of nationalism are based on membership in a historical cultural community institutionalized by the state on a given territory. Views differ as to how this membership is expressed and how it relates to the creation of nation-states in 19th-century Europe.  Its conceptualization, however, remains vague and is applied to a variety of phenomenon.  Some authors, such as A.D. Smith, emphasize a “primordialist” approach when they highlight the ethnic origins of nationalism. W. Connor, in his concept of “ethnonationalism,” also sees an ethnic basis in the definition of a nation, but he is referring to minority nationalisms, particularly regional ones, expressed in reaction to an attempt to achieve a culturally homogenous blend in various nation-states.  Other theories of nationalism pertain to the political agenda for self-determination of a people sharing the same myths of origin, the same language and the same ideology.  From this standpoint, the state and its territory are the only sources of legitimacy. E. Kedourie, for instance, does not reject the idea of a primordial attachment that he expresses in terms of “need,” but he strives to define the legitimate criteria by which a people can create a state. According to Gellner, the phenomenon is part of the modernization process, with the passage from an agrarian society to an urban society and the emergence of an elite mobilizes to create a nation. On the whole, the institutionalization of nationalism is the result of social movements of resistance that seek autonomy, self-determination, freedom or decolonization, or even territorial expansion, movements that all boil down to a struggle for territory.

Such definitions of nationalism consider all nations as being linked to a state established on a territory.  The emergence of communities as a result of the politicization of identities within nation-states and the multiple loyalties of their members, a source of dissociation between state and nation, has led to different interpretations of nationalism.  A “portable” nationality to use B. Anderson’s expression, as reference to the mobility of individuals and to their action, increasingly de-territorialized. The resulting transnationality is behind a new imagined community that goes against the unified community brought together around the same territorialized political project.  This new community is imagined on the basis of a religion or an ethnicity that encompasses linguistic and national differences and breaks away from the territorialized nationalist project to assert itself beyond national borders, without geographical limits, as a deterritorialized nation in search of an inclusive (and exclusive) center, around an identity or an experience constructed out of immigration, dispersion and a minority situation that aims to achieve legitimacy and recognition not only from states, but also from supranational or international institutions.  This quest generates “a permanent tension been the idea of the state as a source of absolute power and the reality of the state as something limited both from beyond.” These tensions crystallize around the issue of minority nationalisms, be they national, territorial, ethnic or religious. A form of nationalism arises when they mobilize beyond national borders, and this phenomenon reinforces the interdependency between internal political developments and the involvement of transnational actors in the international political system.

The question of territory and territoriality

The question of territory has always been at the heart of nationalist movements. Through territorialization a community becomes a geopolitical reality, an independent nation whose territorial borders coincide with political and cultural boundaries. Territory is even what makes a nation; its right to self-determination, a combination of cultural and territorial autonomy, is what is at stake in conflicts, even wars, between states as well as between states and nations that have risen up against those who have the monopoly of legitimate violence on their territory. How can a nation, then, be conceived of without territory? How can nationalism as a historic concept be delinked from its territorial attribute? The example is often given of the Roma, who define themselves as a group that has developed its entire national conscience precisely on the lack of territory and today claims a right to non-territorial self-determination and recognition of it as such in the international system. Dispersed throughout the entire European continent and beyond, never having had any territorial reference or country recognized as their country of origin, the Roma are increasingly being listened to in international bodies. They are represented at the World Bank, the United Nations and the European Union. They claim to be a stateless nation which therefore has no territory. Their demands echo those of immigrants or political refugees, making reference to human rights, the fight against racism and discrimination, and demands for integration, particularly through education in their host country. At no time do they raise the issue of territoriality.

The question of non-territoriality arose in the early 20th century in the Austro-Hungarian Empire when Karl Renner and Otto Bauer advocated social democracy and sought an alternative to minority and diaspora nationalism. Karl Renner suggested personal autonomy in reaction to projects to territorialize the nation. For Otto Bauer, national autonomy based on the principle of territoriality was unquestionably the way to circumscribe national spheres of power and quash national power struggles. The nation, a “community of faith,” was to seek unity in the proletariat which would surpass ethnic and religious differences specific to the empire, but nevertheless aspired to cultural autonomy – starting in particular with language as a tool for non-territorial communication.  

Transnational nationalism

Today non-territoriality is an extension of the debates surrounding multiculturalism. Cultural, ethnic and religious communities recognized as such by states that increasingly rely on transnational solidarities have sparked new upsurges of nationalism. This translates as the nationalization of community sentiment (whatever its content may be) or the communitarization of networks of transnational solidarity accompanied by new forms of subjectivity. The territorial boundaries of these communities are not disputed, on the contrary their non-territorial boundaries follow formal and/or informal network connections that transcend the territorial limits of states and nations, thus creating a new form of territorialization invisible and unbounded and consequently a form of political community within which individual actions become the basis for a form of non-territorial nationalism that seeks to strengthen itself through speech, symbols, images and objects. These communities are guided by a deterritorialized “imagined geography” that gives rise to a form of transnational nationalism, or a type of nationalism without territory that should be conceived as a new historical stage in nationalism.

B. Anderson noticed that the development of capitalism generated a new type of nationalism that he terms “long-distance nationalism.” The development of emigration, the evolution of means of communication, the new industrial civilization and the ensuing social and geographical mobility has raised consciousnesses and led to an identity-based withdrawal fueling nationalist claims to the effect that repressed ethnic identities should take the form of ethnicity-based nation-states. In their own definition of a similar concept, N. Glick-Schiller and G. Eugen Fouron suggest that long distance nationalism is reconfiguring the way many people understand the relationship between populations and the states that claim to represent them. According to these authors, the political agenda associated with this type of nationalism relates to “the vision of the nation as extending beyond the territorial boundaries of the state frequently springs from the life experiences of migrants of different classes, whose lives stretch across borders to connect homeland and new land.” This is reminiscent of the projects of reconstruction of nation-states elaborated in exile that B. Anderson also mentions.

The “distance” to which this type of nationalism refers is thus none other than distance with respect to territory the reference territory, that of the country of origin or the one that must be conquered or reconquered to build a state, the “homeland.” In the early 20th-century, the same phenomenon gave rise to the concept of “diaspora nationalism” that Gellner qualifies as “ historical fact” and considers a subspecies of nationalism. According to him, this concerns a group in a minority situation due to its religion or its language and that is consequently excluded from the state’s version of nationalism: the group of urban, educated “foreigners” who have no political power, but who have economic clout that they use, moreover, to serve nationalist purposes. Gellner sees diaspora nationalism as the result of a social transformation, a cultural renaissance and a desire of this minority to acquire a territory.  Nationalist movements founded and developed in exile, as is the case of diaspora nationalisms, are projects that are territory-based with regards to self-determination or the redefinition of the nationalist foundation for the building of the state.

For transnational nationalism, self-determination does not imply cultural autonomy on a territorial basis, but recognition within the framework of state structures, an “institutional assimilation” serving as the basis of equality for the differences that arise in the public space of Western democracies. From that standpoint, demands for recognition take on a racial or ethnic, even a religious, character, depending on the interactions with the community’s states of residence and are based on forces outside the state territory. Thus transnationalism challenges multiculturalism.

But in what way is this entity a “transnational nation”? Is a rhetoric that seeks to create an entity enough to generate transnational nationalism? Obviously this entity is not built upon common “ancestors,” nor on a quest for national self-determination. It is also difficult to talk about collective organized action with a view to building a nation-state, thus of nationalism. Membership is determined neither by blood nor by soil; it is not based on the civic principles that unite individuals claiming membership in this nation on the same territory.  What’s more, the references are first of all the product of the nation-states of origin, and linguistic, national and ethnic attachments take precedence over this solely religious identification, even if the latter is not excluded from the first three. Likewise, allegiances seemed to be fleeting, temporary and opportunistic.  

So what makes this entity a nation and its expression a nationalism? According to Gellner, nationalism is the product of major transformations. He refers in particular to the Emancipation that dissolved the old isolated communities and united them around a political community. Today the transformation is taking place not through “grouping,” but on the contrary by the dissociation of communities from the political community, by the delinking of citizenship (territorialized rights) and nationalities that are expressed beyond state borders.  Such transformations replace territory with space.  

The transnational nation fits within the global space which does not reflect but produces an identity and generates a mode of participation beyond borders, as can be seen in the involvement of actors in strengthening transnational solidarities. Accusing states of their deficiencies in human rights or citizenship rights as the basis of democratic equality, the actors seek to channel the loyalty of individuals in a territorialized political community toward a non-territorialized political community, thus redefining the terms of membership and allegiance to a global nation maintained by the rhetoric of unity diffused thanks to modern technology which produces a single idiom, that of images, even a single language, English, as the language of participation on websites and social media.