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Allan Craigie, University of Edinburgh, Unionism and Pan-Nationalism: Theoretical Musings on the Dialectical Relationship between Minority and Majority Sub-State Nationalism

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Allan Craigie, University of Edinburgh, Unionism and Pan-Nationalism: Theoretical Musings on the Dialectical Relationship between Minority and Majority Sub-State Nationalism
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Hobsbawn argues that there are no more than a dozen states in the world were state and nation perfectly overlap (1996: 257). Within orthodox interpretations of nationalism, minority nations are framed as challenging the established order, while the state is framed as neutral. This paper challenges this interpretation along two mutually reinforcing axis. Firstly, it seeks to build a theoretical framework for what can be termed ‘majority nationalism’. While many authors hint at this phenomenon, and allow for it within the theoretical frameworks they construct (Mann 1993, 1995, Hechter 2001, Deutsch 1966a, Billig 1995, Gagnon and Iacovino 2007), it has received scant academic attention, with the edited volume by Kaufmann (2004) being a notable exception. Secondly, it outlines ways in which identity becomes problematized within the state due to majority nationalism. Thirdly, it introduces opposing interpretations of the state in multinational communities, which can manifest in opposing ‘pure-type’ interpretations of the state; Unionist and Pan-Nationalist interpretations. Much of the current nationalism literature appears to interpret nationalism as being the ‘fault’ of minority nations. This work seeks to establish that nationalism is the result of a dialectical relationship between the majority and minority nations and their conflicting interpretations of the nature of the state.

Majority Nationalism

Hechter (2001) outlines four ways nationalism manifest; State-building nationalism is the attempt to assimilate culturally diverse territories. Peripheral nationalism is the resistance to state building. Irredentist nationalism is when a state attempts to expand its boundaries to incorporate co-nationals. Unification nationalism is the merger of culturally homogenous but politically divided territory. Hechter also mentions patriotism, a movement centred on the greatness of the nation (Hechter 2000: 15-17). Tilly (1998: 475-6) argues nationalism has two forms, state-led and state-seeking, state led includes the creation and imposition of dominant languages, myths, symbols, rituals, memberships, education routines, and obligations. Mann (1995: 46) argues that there are three types of nationalism; 1) state reinforcing, in which the state and the nation match up, 2) state subverting in which the state is bigger than the nation, and 3) state creating in which the state is smaller than the nation (Mann 1995: 46).

All the above theorists outline cases in which the dominant nation is using its position within the state to impose its culture on the state. In order to understand how dominant groups in a multinational states express their nationalism, it needs to be understood that, unlike minority nationalism, it is not conscious. It is what Billig (1995) refers to as Banal Nationalism. These are not the ‘hot’ nationalism, when recognized it is seen as patriotism. According to Deutsch (1966b: 6) states must obtain the compliance or active support of the largest groups in a territory and the majority of the population in order to maintain the legitimacy of the state. Similarly, Poggi (1990: 26) argues that as the state grew historically, ‘nation’ became the basis of legitimacy for two reasons; 1) it “has a primordial ring to it,” and 2) based on other emotional bonds. This has lead to the introduction of the misleading term ‘nation-state;’ the assumption that states and nations naturally share the same borders.

As the state and the majority nation become intertwined, the majority community expresses its understanding of the way society should be organized (with their corresponding interpretations of ‘good’ and just’) through the state. As it is national culture that establishes public standards and norms, determining state policy (Kuper 1999), the state becomes the medium for which the majority community’s identity is transmitted. Accordingly, as the majority community expresses its culturally based understandings of liberal values through the state, minority communities interpret this as state building majority nationalism. Individuals can only be free in an environment in which their culture and values are respected, and while most modern states would argue that they rule according to universalistic norms, minority groups may argue against this.

Majority nationalism is especially dangerous for political state-wide cohesion if the minority group begins to feel that a) their way of seeing things is different from the majority, b) that this is generally not understood or recognized by the majority, and c) the majority is not willing to alter forms of debate to accommodate this difference and the minority is being systematically unheard, its voice unable to penetrate public debate (Taylor 1998: 204). Majority nationalism usually entails the transfer of the largest groups (or its elites) interpretations of self onto the nation projected by the state (Lecours and Nootens 2008: 3). Returning to Billig, nationalism is legitimised within the majority nation simply due to the fact that it is dominant and becomes the nationalism of the state. It reinforces the state; minority nationalism challenges it. As such, it is not as obvious as minority sub-state nationalism. Considering nationalism as a minority phenomenon makes its relationship with the sate mainly antagonistic (Lecours and Nootens 2008: 4), it ignores the dialectical relationship between the majority and minority nation as they react to each other.

In a stable liberal democracy elections are designed to produce winners and losers, and the losers must see the outcome as legitimate (Anderson and Mendes 2005). Indeed, the reaction to majority nationalism may be interpreted as minority nationalism when instead it is a defence of the status quo against changes being made by the other nation. Interpreted as state subverting nationalism (nationalism in its traditional sense), this should be read in light of the minority nations. This is an intrusion of the state and a threat to the minority’s existence. Challenging the assumptions of the state held by actors in the majority nation, minority nationalism forces elites to address fundamental questions as to the nature of the state. This is a fairly orthodox interpretation of nationalism, and this section has attempted to that rather than it being minority nationalism solely, it is the dialectical relationship between majority and minority nations, each of which interacts with the state that brings the nature of the state into question.

Balance and the multinational state

This discussion will now highlight how, in multi-national states, a sense of balance needs to be created amongst the constituent units. Without balance a ‘tyranny of the majority’ may arise in which the state becomes too responsive to the majority nation. In turn, this may lead to divergent aims as conflicting interpretations of the state come to a head. This section will concentrate on why it is important to understand ‘national confusion’ and look at the potential problems created by the conflation of nation and state. Key amongst these are 1) the tyranny of the majority and 2) a divergence of aims, both of which are exacerbated by 3) assumed homogeneity in the state. This section demonstrates how concepts of nation and state become intertwined in multinational communities, leading to situations in which identity is mobilized. This is where the identity ‘fault line’ within states lie, and where these fault lines become active, changing the political environment of the state, the opportunity for regional elite presents itself.

1.Tyranny of the Majority. As stated above, democracies are not solely defined by majority rule, as the consent of the loser in the democratic process is key to a functioning democracy. In order to be seen and interpreted by national minorities and majorities to be fair and equitable, state institutions need to be sympathetic to the aspirations of national minorities who are faced with a political system in which they can never form a majority of the population. The perceived effectiveness of institutions is equally important to institutional arrangements in managing relations between national groupings.

Yet saying that institutional arrangements need to be perceived a certain way and designing institutions is no easy feat. There are extreme difficulties in developing workable constitutional arrangements in multinational states. According to Choudhry (2007: 612) states can be structured to both accommodate and integrate when there is more than one demotic people. But constitutions are compromises between the different nations (Boismenu “Perspectives” 99), and as society changes, without continual renegotiation, the constitutional arrangements of the state may no longer ensure that ‘voice’ is maintained by the minority nation within the democratic process. The accommodation/integration of the minority nation is a complex process, a process in which it is relatively easy for the majority nation to simply impose its will on the minority nation and not even realize that it has done so.

Divergence of Aims. Balance is central to understanding how states comprising multiple nations need to accommodate different norms and values, and the eventual outcomes (or aims) of these societies. The above section discussing losers consent demonstrated that democracies create winners and losers, but in a multinational state this can be of particular concern to the minority nation(s), especially if they continually find themselves on the loosing side of interpretations of what is considered ‘good’ or ‘just.’ As liberalism is actually a construct of cultural understandings of what is ‘good’ (Kuper DATE) if a state has different nations within it, their may be different national interpretations of what constitutes ‘good.’ Both may articulate these conceptions of good within a liberal-democratic discourse, but these liberal-democratic discourses could have different outcomes as they could be based on different assumptions.

Taking this argument to its logical conclusion, one sees how this could result in situations in which the majority and minority nations simply want different outcomes from the state. If actors in the majority nation do not recognize the multi-national character of the state, the reaction within the minority nation may simply be regarded as a form of nationalism and a danger to the state. Majority actors will not take into account the role of the majority nation (of themselves) into account in this process of identity mobilization. In order to balance distinctive aims within a single state may require what can be referred to as ‘deep diversity’ (Taylor 1998) or ‘differentiated citizenship,’ (Gagnon and Iacovino 2007). Yet in order for this to be successful, it requires recognition within the majority nation that there are more than one legitimate ‘demos’ within the state.

1.Assumed Homogeneity. Recognizing the existence of multiple demos in a single state is no simple feat. Above, it was discussed how states become the agent of the majority nations, and that majority nations do not see their positions as being based on cultural norms. As dominant nations take control of the state, state institutions assume a homogeneous sense of nation, which is superimposed upon state. As in the modern era states derive their legitimacy from being the political voices of the nation (Lecours and Nootens 2008). Without recognizing the multi-demos aspect of multinationalism, the state becomes that of the majority nation, rather than the sum of the majority and minority nations working in concert. Returning to the idea of balance, one can see that if elites treat the state in a way that does not adequately allow its constituent member nations to flourish, then the state itself may become a source of political conflict, leading to competition between state and nation.

Overall, the discussion on majority nationalism has shown that nationalism is not just a minority phenomena. The beginning of ‘friction’ between the majority and minority community is not something that can be stated as being a ‘fault’ of either, though. As the perspectives of both the minority and majority communities may be equally valid, they simply have different basic assumptions as to the nature of the state. As the first section argued, identities are fluid and contextual, and territorial identities contested. Accordingly within nations they are contested as well as between nations within the state. Regional elites can use this overall questioning of both ‘identity’ and ‘the state’ to mobilize regional identity for political purposes. Consequently, this section will turn to an analysis of how the differing assumptions of the nature of the state may manifest themselves.

Unionism and Pan-Nationalism

Tierney (2007) makes the point that within much of the study of the state there is an assumed single demos, while in reality a multinational state has multiple demos. From this, one can interpret it to mean that there are differing understandings of the state. Accordingly, two opposing ‘pure types’ emerge; a unionist and a pan-nationalist interpretation of the state. While in reality, these may exist as two poles along a continuum; here these will be developed as two separate concepts. It is from these two understandings of the state that friction within the state occurs, reinforcing nationalist movements, and contributing to the problems within multinational states.

Unionist interpretations privilege the concept of the partnership (compact, union etc) between the constituent nations of the state. This interpretation of the state recognizes the existence of multiple demos within the multinational state and the multiple sources of legitimacy that this implies. It sees the nation as being formed by its constituent elements, where sovereignty lies. This is similar to Hechter’s (2001) unification model of nationalism in which the nation and state are created by the bottom up as members come together, except that the constituent nations keep their national identities. Loyalty to the state takes the form of a non-nationalistic ‘patriotism’ as it recognizes the fact that the community of the state is not built around a common national identity, rather it is built around a constitutional order in which a citizens relationship with the state is mediated through membership in a constituent nations of the state. The state need not be culturally neutral, per say, rather the state incorporates multiple cultures. In respecting its individual citizens dignity, it ensures the member nations dignity is respected as well.

Similar to theories of state building nationalism, pan-nationalist discourse envisages the union that creates the states as the creation of both a new unified national whole and a single demotic people. It encourages loyalty and allegiance to the centre, along the lines of the model of civic-nationalism (see Yack ). State building nationalism is a top down process whereby the state and nation expand outward from the centre. It focuses on the over-arching and state-wide objectives and identities. While a unionist interpretation of the state sees sovereignty divided amongst its component nations, pan-nationalist interpretations see the state as the representative of a single unified demo, representing a single source of democratic legitimacy.

Literature on nations and nationalism in general shows that the nation is always being redefined and redrawn (Resnick 1994: 71). Current interpretations of “the nation” are the interpretations of the segments of the nation holding power; controlling the national discourse and controlling the manner in which the nation is defined. Neither unionist nor pan-nationalist interpretations of the state will be held by every member or either the majority or the minority nations. Rather these two interpretations of the state will compete against each other in elite debates. As these competing views are about the fundamental nature of the state, when they enter political debate they provide the opportunity for regional actors within the majority nation, as member of the majority nation, to express their views on the nature of the state.


Unionist and the Pan-nationalist discourses are a result of the dialectical relationship between not only the constituent members of the state, but the interpretations of the state that transcend membership within the constituent nations. That the interpretation of the state manifests itself along this axis is a result of the nationalism of the majority community, a nationalism that does not realize it exists. As the relationship between liberalism and culture is complex, liberal democratic norms which are thought to be culture free by the majority are challenged in multinational states. It is through this challenging the interpretation of the state that one can see the roots of these two discourses and the mobilization of territorial identity.


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