In The Better Angels of Our Nature Steven Pinker presents an idea from Historian Evan Luard which frames the conflicts of the early 20th century against the conflicts which followed. Luard argues that the world transitioned from an Age of Nationalism to an Age of Ideology following the United States engagement in WWI.
Pinker writes, “Luard ends his Age of Nationalism in 1917. That was the year the United States entered the war and rebranded it as a struggle of democracy against autocracy, and in which the Russian Revolution created the first communist state. The world then entered the Age of Ideology, in which democracy and communism fought Nazism in World War II and each other during the Cold War.”
This is a helpful, broad overview of recent human history and the two major wars that still play major roles in our collective memories. However, it isn’t a perfect explanation and framework for understanding our history. While it is possible that humanity moved in a direction of ideology relative to a framework dominated by nationalism, it leaves us with an incomplete picture that is too final in its treatment of nationalism and too strong in its treatment of ideology.
Nazism was centered around the idea of an ethno-nationalist state. It is hard to argue that it was not a continuation of nationalism and was more focused on ideology. Democracy was (and still is) highly tied to specific nations, as was (and is) communism. The ideologies may have been the leading banners, but the nation states were still the leading actors. Ideology is a broad concept, and when you dig below the surface, few people truly have a consistent or well pieced together ideology. Even for large ideologies like democracy or communism – relative to fascism which I would argue acts more as a catchall term for bad governance – people have trouble truly defining what ideologies mean and represent. People tend to have strong identities and weak ideologies.
Nevertheless, we can see that there was a change between the first and second world wars, a change that took place in the later half of the 20th century as Pinker notes based on Luard’s writing. In the case of the 20th century, I would argue it was not a change from nationalism to ideology, but a change in what were the most salient aspects of nationalism. Humans shifted from conceptualizing a nation based on loyalty leadership and familial bloodlines to conceptualizing a nation based on collective efforts of governance.
Characterizing the world in terms of broad ages will necessarily miss nuances like the ones I tried to tease apart here, but they help us see that what applied in the past may need to be adjusted before being reapplied to the present or future. That is the case with viewing history as an Age of Nationalism transitioning to an Age of Ideology.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that consumerism and nationalism are linked through their shared status as imagined communities. Harari defines an imagined community as “a community of people who don’t really know each other, but imagine that they do.” In a market, we don’t know every producer or every other consumer. The actions of all the other producers and consumers impact us, and we may have niche markets that we are intimately tied to, but we don’t really know many other people in the market. In a nation, we may know a handful of people very closely, another handful of people well, and have a handful of acquaintances, but we certainly don’t know everyone. Nevertheless, we can act as though we know everyone in a community of gym enthusiasts, sneakerheads, or real estate investors. We can feel a unity and connection with all 330 million Americans, all citizens in the Deep South, or everyone living in our city. But these communities are imagined, we don’t really know everyone and don’t actually live in community with them.
Regarding consumerism and nationalism Harari continues, “both are imagined communities because it is impossible for all customers in a market or for all members of a nation to really know one another the way villagers knew one another in the past.” Even if they are not really real, these imagined communities exist for a reason. They help us cooperate and coordinate among huge numbers of humans. “consumerism and nationalism work extra hours to make us imagine that millions of strangers belong to the same community as ourselves, that we all have a common past, common interests, and a common future. This isn’t a lie. It’s imagination.”
This imagination helps us connect with people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to connect with. It helps us trust people we otherwise wouldn’t have a reason to trust. It can go too far and lead us to purchase shoes for thousands of dollars or to die in wars started by the megalomania of a charismatic leader. But in general, consumerism and nationalism have become a foundation for large scale human cooperation in the modern era. We hide the fact that these communities are imagined and the better we do the better we can participate with the other members of our imagined community. It can give us a sense of purpose and meaning in interacting and living among other people, even if it is all based on shared myth.
In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “in the early twenty-first century, the world is still divided into about 200 states. But none of these states is truly independent. They all depend on one another.”
I am not a international relations scholar and I don’t have an extensive background in covering world affairs or foreign politics, but I don’t think such a background is necessary to see how globalized the world economy has become today. It is likely that the shirts we are wearing have travelled further across the globe than we have. We can see that the actions of one oil producing country, or the collective decisions of the countries which form OPEC, can influence the cost of oil and gas in our home country, making us happy when gas prices drop and furious when they rise. Our global supply chain is dependent on metals from numerous different countries, designs from different parts of the planet, and inputs from countries near and far. We depend on other countries to have the lifestyles and products that we want.
In the United States right now, nationalist thinking has become popular. There is a segment of the country that wants to believe that we can produce all of the goods and services that we want and need internally, that we can provide all of the resources that we need, and that we can shutout other countries. This is not possible in the globalized world we inhabit. Political and economic shocks in other countries will still influence what happens in the markets domestically. Social movements that start abroad can spill into the United States. Our country only has 330 million of 7 billion people on the planet. While we might be able to support many of our own needs internally, markets will always push our companies to engage with the remaining 6.7 billion people on earth.
Beyond thinking of just the American economy and political system, there are challenges that humanity will face that cannot be answered by countries in isolation. Global climate change requires working with and cooperating with other countries. Wildlife and marine life management will require working with other countries. Addressing pollution, microplastics, oil spills, and radiation contamination requires the coordinated efforts of multiple countries. Whether we like it or not, whether we have institutions to deal with it or not, we are dependent on one another. The United States is not an exception, countries today are not truly independent.