Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Why do people live in countries?
And what's the big deal about patriotism?
Humans have always lived on earth, but we haven't always been attached to the earth. In our million years before agriculture, humans roamed around in search of edible plants and animals. The buffalo-hunting tribes of the Great Plains in America suggest a model for this style of existence. Competition among tribes involved access to the moving resource rather than attachment to a particular plot of ground.
The adoption of agriculture changed things. Plants don't move. The people who sowed a crop wanted assurance they would be the ones to reap it. For the first time, specific lines in the ground mattered. Not coincidentally, the agricultural revolution gave rise to a revolution in social organization, leading to the creation of states and governments. Bands and clans of hunters were transformed into nations—what we call countries, denoting the attachment of peoples to parcels of geography.
In time the situation was formalized. The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia established for Europe the rules for modern politics there. Three centuries later, the United Nations adopted the model for the world at large. The fundamental principle of organization of the United Nations was territorial sovereignty.
According to this model, the fundamental connection of individuals to larger groups was via nationality—meaning attachment to a nation-state. Nations are, in a fundamental sense, black boxes to other nations. What goes on inside one nation is the business of that nation only.
There are exceptions to the rule. The concept of human rights aims to transcend national sovereignty. But this concept remains vague and flimsy compared to the stubbornly robust idea of national sovereignty and geographical exclusivity.
The claim of governments over individuals is stronger than any other claim. Governments can legitimately seize the property of individuals, through taxes, and they can deprive individuals of liberty, through court action and imprisonment. In some countries, they can deprive individuals of life, via the death penalty. In all countries, they can put individuals at risk of death via military service.
Governments and the societies they represent reward loyalty, calling it patriotism. The greatest heroes are those who put love of country ahead of love of self. The greatest villains are traitors, who place another country ahead of their own. Flags and the rituals surrounding them, including national anthems, remind individuals where their loyalty must lie.
In certain respects, this all seems very natural, having been the norm for hundreds of years. Yet the agricultural roots that gave rise to the existing system have attenuated dramatically. The great majority of people in wealthy countries are no longer farmers and have no direct attachment to the soil. Moreover, agricultural products are commonly traded across borders. Control of the soil is no longer a prerequisite for being fed, nor a guarantee of it.
Perhaps it's time to reconsider the territorial organization of the human race. Twice in the last two centuries, ambitious starts have been made in this direction. The first age of globalization, led by Britain after the abolition of grain tariffs there in the 1840s, and the second age, promoted by the United States after 1945, went far toward detaching economics from national politics. In the first age of globalization, European socialists were so bold as to predict that should their governments declare war, the workers would refuse to fight, preferring solidarity with their fellow workers in other countries. In the second age of globalization, optimists imagined that territorial wars had become a thing of the past.
The First World War exploded the idea of socialist solidarity. The war in Ukraine has challenged the notion that territorial wars won't happen anymore.
On the other hand, the European Union has successfully eroded the claims of national governments within its sphere. National laws coexist with union-wide regulations. National governments have surrendered control of their borders regarding passage of goods and people within the union.
Two other factors have undercut the claims of national governments. The last quarter-millennium has witnessed unprecedented movement of peoples from one country to another. This began with the industrial revolution, which drew scores of millions from countries with many people and few jobs to countries with few people and many jobs. The wars of the 20th and 21st centuries displaced scores of millions more, who often wound up in countries not of their birth.
The migrants themselves had no attachment to the land of the countries they were going to; their children had a bit more but nothing like the connection of families long in place. A country like the United States has been more a creation of will and imagination than of rootedness. American patriotism was as much an assertion of faith and hope as a reflection of innate feeling.
The second erosive factor was the emergence of issues that transcended national borders. Climate change was one; the risk and reality of pandemics was another. The first responsibility of governments—their original raison d'etre—was the provision of security to those they governed. When attacks came overland, national borders made security sense. But walls and armies can't keep out the most recent threats. Some different mode of organization is required.
The European Union offers one alternative. But it’s still based on geography. You’re either inside the EU or out, depending on your GPS coordinates. Human rights offer another. But they’re honored more in the breach than in the observance, and are subject to national veto, as China and the United States demonstrate, the former by stonewalling investigations of Uyghur treatment and both by boycotting the International Criminal Court.
Patriotism—from patria, the fatherland—dies hard. It’s a youngster in human history, yet older than any individuals. It’s bound to outlast a few more generations of us. But it might not last forever.