Chapter Two: Cultural Globalization

III. The Role Of The Nation State In Establishing Cultural Uniformity

As explained in the Introduction, a sense of national cultural commonality came into being as a result of the spread of nation states in the 17th to 19th centuries, driven by the emergence of national 'print-languages' which fostered a feeling of community among their users (readers), although 'print-languages' and nations were by no means co-terminous (see Benedict Anderson 5.) Nations as such had existed prior to the 15th century, but owed little to any sense of nationality among their inhabitants.

It's probably not accurate to think of national consciousness as somehow replacing the previously existing layers or aspects of consciouness: a 19th century worker still belonged to a nuclear family, an extended family, a local community and a host of other groups, each of which contributes its own cultural resonance to the individual's total cultural equipment. However, the State certainly did deliberately try to create over-riding cultural imperatives (patriotism, for example), and other national cultural content came about through the agency of the media, sometimes with government's active involvement and sometimes without.

In between national culture and private group-based culture there is a set of group-like associations which exist for a variety of semi- or purely public reasons, and which contribute strongly towards the cultural totality of an individual's environment. Trades Unions are an obvious example. This aspect of states has been widely investigated in public choice theory. Many of these types of group have unhelpful features, and they are far from conforming to the ideal of a human collective.

Richerson and Boyd 6 describe how the trend towards larger groupings that has accompanied the growth of the State has tended to be an abuse of the nature of the basic, evolved human group: 'Almost everything in modern life – trade, religion, government and science – is a mistake from the point of view of the selfish gene.'

Mancur Olsen 7 shows that the activities of special-interest groups at policy level have a negative impact in economic terms. Obvious examples would include trades unions, employer organizations and producer lobby groups. In most respects they are no advertisement for groupishness, and what can one say except that you have to fight fire with fire. It is the fault of the State that trades unions, which once upon a time fulfilled useful social roles for their members are now reduced to holding out begging bowls and standing in the way of change.

Although printing was the primary technological innovation which allowed modern nation states to form, they have not been slow to use other innovative communication techniques, including of course wireless, television and the movies quite effectively in order to (mis)educate, (dis)inform and (over)control their citizens; this is a process that perhaps reached its apogee during the Second World War, when most countries exercised stringent control over the content of newspapers, books, radio, movies and other media. In other words, they attempted to control the cultural life-blood of their societies.

This was a difference only in degree, rather than kind, to what had already been increasingly the case. By the beginning of the 20th century, individuals already conceived their cultural identity in strongly national terms. This had not been the explicit goal of nation states, although they would not have been unhappy about such an outcome.

The emergence of national stereotypes is one indication of what had happened. They were and are extremely well developed for almost all significant nations. Think of John Bull; the Germans occupying sun-beds in a famous TV advertisement; 'loud' Americans 'over here'; the French with their berets and wine; Italians in shades and stripey t-shirts; and so on. These cultural personifications of countries date from the 19th century, evidencing the fact that 'country' had become a major indicator of cultural identity. This would have been a nonsensical idea 500 years before.

National stereotypes are alive and well in the early 21st century, although their time in the sun may be coming to an end. The British national cultural assemblage includes:

Warm beer
Being reserved
Lager louts
Football hooligans
Mean Scotsmen
Drunken Irish
Morris dancing
Red London buses
The friendly bobbie
Blackpool Tower
Benny Hill
Inability to speak foreign languages
The Beatles
Remembrance Sunday

This list could be five times as long; but there is no need to go on, the picture is clear. Any given individual in the UK would align themselves with only a few, or possibly even none of these categories; never mind, it is a description of Britishness which is instantly recognizable to Brits, and to many other non-British people in the world. Benny Hill is very popular in Russia, along with Shakespeare and Absolutely Fabulous.

Does one suppose that 14th century villagers would have had a corresponding set of cultural categories to mark themselves off from other people from far away? It is a fascinating exercise to imagine how such people might describe the distinguishing characteristics of their culture if we were now able to ask them about it. Here's a guess:

Feudal ties
Demotic speakers (the feudal lords spoke French or Latin)
God-fearing church-goers

Would the list have been about the same anywhere in Europe, except perhaps for the sheep? The comparison illustrates how individual consciousness has expanded to take in concepts linked to nationality, and it could not have done this without the advent of communications technologies, first books, then newspapers, radio and television.


5 Anderson, B (1991) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, (2nd ed, first published 1983), Verso, London

6 Richerson, P J, and Boyd, R (2004) Not By Genes Alone; How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London

7 Olsen, M (1982) The Rise And Decline Of Nations, Yale University Press, New Haven and London