The Regents, New York’s public school state tests, are coming up in May, and so some of the time I’ve been spending with S, the fifth grader I’ve been tutoring, has been given over to test prep. Which is how it came to be that I was sitting in S’s living room in a primarily Polish neighborhood in southern Queens a couple of weeks ago, reading aloud to to her a chirpy Highlights for Children-style essay called “It’s Only Money!”

The essay was from the listening section of the exam from 2006, which the DOE has put on their website as a practice test. She was taking laborious notes on it as I read; she was supposed to be able to answer questions about it based on her notes. “Money,” wrote the author,

is really just a symbol. That means it stands for something else. Long ago, people did not use money. They did not go to stores to buy what they needed. People had to make or grow food, clothes, and other things they needed. They grew crops. They made clothes from wool from their sheep. They made baskets from grasses. They made pots from clay they dug out of the ground.

Later, people started trading. When people traded, they no longer had to make everything they needed. People began to do certain kinds of work. Then they would trade what they made to someone else in order to get different foods and goods…

The author describes various bartering situations: a baker trades bread for wheat, a weaver trades cloth for meat. But all is not well, in the land of bartering: “The goods might be too heavy to carry.” What if, the author asks,

the cow farmer wanted to trade a cow for a horse? Or if the chicken farmer wanted to trade ten chickens for a pig? They would have to carry their animals with them. Bartering did not have a way to make change, either. What if the cow farmer wanted to trade a cow for a chicken? A cow is worth more than a chicken. One cow might be worth ten chickens. But what if the farmer only wanted one chicken, not ten? The farmer should get “change.” But how can you make change from a cow?  This is where money comes in…

S, my student, looked up scornfully.  She was sitting on the floor, with a tendency to slide under the living room table; I was on the couch.

“I know how to make change from a cow,” she said, with the combination of dignity and outrage that no one over the age of twelve can muster quite as well. “You cut it in half and give the other half to the guy… Why would you even want a pig?  What use is that?”

“Well, do you like bacon?”

“I never had bacon,” she said dismissively.

“How about pork chops?”

“Nope.”  I don’t actually believe her; they’re Eastern Orthodox, not Jewish.

“Well, maybe you don’t need a pig, then.  But–”

“You didn’t ask about pepperoni,” she interrupted.  I sighed.

“Do you like pepperoni?”

“Yeah, but I don’t eat it anymore, because it’s not healthy for me.  Also I don’t eat Jell-o because it’s made from pig skins.  Is that true?”

“I think it’s actually horses’ hoofs.” S. looked horrified, and slid under the table again. “…what are you doing?”

“I’m looking for my shoe and my sock.  With my feet.” Her voice was muffled.

“Well, sit up, we’re not done…’This is where money comes in. People used to use all kinds of small things for money. They used shells, beads, feathers, seeds, and even salt…’”

“Um,” said S, “I have a question.  Did they have trucks back then?”

“Yeah, probably…” I said, absent-mindedly, looking over the rest of the passage.

“Well then WHY,” said S, outraged, “didn’t they just load the chickens and the pigs into the TRUCKS? Then they wouldn’t HAVE to carry them around!”

I backpedaled hastily, realizing the trap into which I had been led. “Well, actually, no, I was wrong; back then they wouldn’t have had trucks.  I mean, some modern societies do still practice barter, and those guys might have a truck… But look, it’s very inconvenient to have to carry chickens around on a truck…”

“At least,” she said, “you get FRESH EGGS and you know that they are GOOD!”

I hadn’t– I really hadn’t– been propagandizing her.  My little food radical.  She comes by it naturally, and I am sure that Jörg Guido Hülzmann has been strangely troubled, recently, in his office in the Loire Valley, since an eleven-year-old in Queens came up with her devastating challenge to the traditional solution of the problem of the double coincidence of wants.

Without money, Hülzmann wrote in his 2008 Mises Institute publication The Ethics of Money Production,

people would exchange their products in barter; for example, Jones would barter his apple against two eggs from Brown.  In such a world, the volume of exchanges– in other words, the extent of social cooperation– is limited through technological constraints and through the problem of the double coincidence of wants.  Barter exchanges take place only if each trading partner has a direct personal need for the good he receives in the exchange.  But even in those cases in which the double coincidence of wants is given, the goods are often too bulky and cannot be subdivided to accomodate them to the needs.  Imagine a carpenter trying to buy ten pounds of flour with a chair.  The chair is far more valuable than the flour, so how can an exchange be arranged? Cutting the chair into, say, twenty pieces would not provide him with objects that are worth just one twentieth the value of the chair; rather, such “division” of the chair would destroy its entire value.  The exchange would therefore not take place…

These problems can be reduced through what has been called “indirect exchange.”  In our example, the carpenter could exchange his chair against 20 ounces of silver, and then buy the ten pounds of flour in exchange for a quarter ounce of silver…Thus indirect exchange provides our carpenter with additional opportunities for cooperation with other human beings.  It extends the division of labor.  And it thereby contributes to the material, intellectual, and spiritual advancement of each person.

It was this classical liberal model of spiritual uplift through the exchange of money that I like to think S was critiquing.  You don’t need the silver bullion. All you need, apparently, is a truck.  Which, granted, in a busy mixed-use neighborhood in Queens could easily be mistaken for an abundant natural resource.

I sighed.  She had succeeded in distracting me.  Again.  “OK, ready for more note-taking? ‘This is where money comes in…’ ” The author explained that people used lots of different small items for money:

They used shells, beads, feathers, seeds, and even salt. (Salt was worth a lot because it was needed to save food and to make food taste good.) A group of people would decide the worth of a kind of shell. Other kinds of shells would be worth more or less. Then people had money that was worth a certain amount. It was easy to carry. It was easy to make change.

“Wait.  I have a question.  How do you save food with SALT?”

“You know how meat starts to stink if it gets old? If you don’t put it in the fridge? Well, if you rub meat all over with salt and let it sit in it, then you can make it last longer, even without a fridge.”  She nodded, satisfied; perhaps she was, again, thinking of pepperoni.

We eventually made it through the whole article.  I was, however, not out of the woods: there was a series of questions to answer.  The first one was fine.  The second, though…

“Which of the following sentences from the article states an opinion?” I read over S’s shoulder. The options were: A) “Long ago, people did not use money;” B) “The barter system was a good system;” C) “Weavers could trade cloth for meat;” and D) “Some countries have money with pictures.”This would have been fine– I could have let it go– if it hadn’t been for the fact that I had– just that week– been reading The New Science of Politics.  Early on in the book, Voegelin is talking about Max Weber’s half-unwilling sacrifice of moral epistemology,

the positivistic conceit that only propositions concerning facts of the phenomenal world were “objective,” while judgments concerning the right order of soul and society were “subjective.”  Only propositions of the first type could be considered “scientific,” while propositions of the second type expressed personal preferences and decisions, incapable of critical verification and therefore devoid of objective validity.  This classification made sense only if the positivistic dogma was accepted on principle…

Oh, Eric Voegelin, how you complicate my life.  “Hey, I have something important to tell you…c’mon, sit up.”

“What?” said S. “So what answer does the test want, here?  Which of the following is an opinion rather than a fact?”  She looked over the answers, breezily, and pointed out “The barter system was a good system.”  “Because it uses the word ‘good,’ right? And that’s an opinion-word?” I said.  “Well, that’s what you should say on the test.  But I’m not talking to you as a test-taker here, I’m talking to you as a human being.  Here’s the thing: it looks like an opinion but SECRETLY IT’S A FACT!”Her eyes got really big and she stood up, sliding her feet into her Uggs, to be ready for either combat or a quick getaway, I guess.  “How is it a fact?””Well, there are different kinds of facts.  There are things about the physical world, like…” I cast around for an example, and found one in my hand: “‘…this is a piece of paper.’  But there are other facts that aren’t about things that are physical, but about things that are good and bad.  Can you think of one?””It’s good to have a flat screen TV,” she said, looking at hers appreciatively.”Well, no, I’d call that more opinion. But how about something like, it’s good for fifth grade girls to have enough to eat?  Is that a fact or an opinion?””…Fact?” she said, tentatively.”Yep.  Fact.”

“Because if they don’t then they’d be hungry and the next day they might overeat!” she said.

“…well, I was thinking more like, you know how there are people who don’t have enough to eat at all?  Even the next day?  That’s bad, right?”


“Well, is it a fact that it’s bad, or an opinion?”

Her eyes were as big as saucers.  “Fact,” she said very quietly.

“Fact.  But for questions like that, in school, you should answer opinion, so that they know you understand what they’re asking.”

“OK, but you’re confusing me…”

Oy.  I mean…I don’t want to make her life harder.  She already has so much to deal with: ballet lessons and piano lessons…  And her parents didn’t hire me to teach ethics…  “Don’t worry about it.  OK, let’s do this one: ‘Why did people change from using the barter system to using money?’

It really is very difficult not to get into metaphysics when you are talking to a fifth grader– is that just me?  Others must have noticed this, too– but I do try not to be too interventionist.  I do.    Before Christmas I was helping her with a paper about James Madison, in which she came down very strongly in favor of the unitary state.  I believe the quote (from her conclusion) was, “James Madison was important because if we didn’t have him, the British would have won against the USA in the War of 1812 and we would be British now.  And also, if we didn’t have the Constitution we wouldn’t be united together.”  I felt terribly odd about this, what with the Southern agrarians I’d been reading, but I didn’t feel free to challenge her ideology.  Her English teacher is wonderfully conservative in her approach to grammar instruction but might not take kindly to radical anti-federalism.

Let alone to flat-out anti-liberalism.  A couple of weeks ago I was in the middle of an email conversation with a collection of people about the tension between having an appropriate cynicism about the nation-state, and having an appropriate optimism about the possibilities of politics.  P., the one who’d started off the debate, had written that he’d been reading William Cavanaugh’s essay “Killing for the Telephone Company: Why the Nation-State is Not the Keeper of the Common Good” (Modern Theology20, no. 2 : 2004).”Cavanaugh makes,” P. wrote, “pretty convincingly, the argument that the nation from its founding was never about the common good, it was about power and destroying competing affiliations that might genuinely be grounded in practices that build mutual understanding, affection… etc.” P. felt the force of this argument, but he also is one who tends to push back against complete anti-statism and those who argue that politics is futile, that governments can’t ever be used to promote the common good.  He is, as well as being fairly convinced by Cavanaugh’s analysis, at the same time drawn to the vision of political theorists like Sheldon Wolin, the Princeton political philosopher who

makes an impassioned defense of the democratic vision as almost a holy thing, as a grand American tradition. He is like a modern Mr. Smith…who comes to Washington and gazes at the Capital building as the sacred place where the common good is (sometimes, potentially) enacted into law. Wolin condemns the attacks on national democratic governance, and he is bewildered by the success of such attacks: why, he asks, should the choice of the people be condemned as some sort of autocratic and necessarily alien thing?

P. was, in this initial email, struggling with the two competing assessments of the potential of politics in general, and politics within the modern nation state, in particular. “I mean,” he wrote,

even if Cavanaugh is right about the genealogy of the nation, does this mean that governments today, in every actually existing state, cannot be a place where the public seeks to promote the public good? Do things ever become what they weren’t intended to be at the outset? And if it cannot, is this due to a structural and genealogical flaw in the very ontology of the state, or is it because self-interested power always finds a way to defeat the common good, and that’s that? In other words, perhaps the same forces that prevent the common good from being enacted at the level of the state today, will also defeat any attempt at achieving it under a new order guided by the ‘Church,’ by localism, etc.

The first round of email back-and-forth went on, and the questions were in the back of my mind the next time I went for tutoring: this was the session before our most recent Natural Money Production for the Elementary School Set session.  Luckily, S. had clearly been giving these issues some thought as well.  “So how do you get to be president, anyway?” she had asked me, somewhat abruptly, in an attempt to distract me from comma splices.

“You know the answer to that,” I told her.  “You tell me.”  She did know it; she has this habit, in which I try not to indulge her, of asking me things that she already knows the answers to.”You get the most people to vote for you,” she said. “…you tell them, ‘VOTE FOR ME!'””Yup,” I said.

“Actually the president works for US, actually!”  She was bouncing up and down; she bounces frequently, and when she does, her hair, which is long and brown and straight, goes everywhere. “That’s fair… Do you know, Barack Obama wanted to make our summer SHORTER?  He wanted to take away all of June!  And a lot of July!  And at my school we were like, NOOOOO! So he didn’t.  My parents wanted him to also, though.”

“That’s fair.”  But why is it fair, according to her?  There’s the procedural element: “you get the most people to vote for you.” There’s the representative element, with a focus on the idea of delegation: “the president works for us.”  But then there’s an older batch of ideas: the ruler should be responsive to the outcry of the people against the violation of custom, even between elections; and the ruler doesn’t have the right to overturn elements of tradition that have nearly the force of natural law.  Summer vacation is not a natural right in the Lockean sense; but it is felt to be a right because of its persistence in our culture.  It’s more like one of the chartered rights of a guild, or one of the particular rights of a free city: its warrant is not, perhaps, in the nature of fifth-graders, but in its antiquity, and in its relationship to the natural progress of the seasons.  You can’t, for S and her class, abolish vacation during June and July any more than you can abolish June and July themselves.

I’d responded to P.’s email by quoting Hilaire Belloc, who in his Essay on the Restoration of Propertylambastes the “dying Parliamentary theory of politics,” which:

proceeds from the false statement which deceived three generations of Europe, from the French Revolution to our own day, that corporate action may be identified with individual action.  So men speak of their “representatives” as having been “chosen” by themselves.  But in experienced reality there is no such thing as this imagined permanent corporate action through delegation…delegation destroys freedom.  Parliaments have everywhere proved irreconcilable with democracy.  They are not the people.  They are oligarchies.

But this was written in 1935, and Belloc was getting a touch fascist.  That fact should not however, serve to discredit his acceptance of some state power:

An action by the State is one thing when it is used to free mankind and to give the citizens economic independence, and an exactly opposite thing when it is used to take that independence away.  As men would have put it when property was, indeed, well-distributed and when it corresponded to a strong national monarchy, “the King is there to safeguard the freedom of the small man against the tyranny of the great.”  That is the king’s main function, and there is nothing in common between the exercise of that function and the oriental idea of the King as universal owner with all men as his slaves.  On the contrary, the right conception of kingship as moderator and preserver of freedom is the very contrary to, and destruction of, the wrong conception of kingship as a universal despotism.

By Belloc’s lights, the notion that Obama is a representative of the people (S’s second reason for calling the presidency fair) is absurd, and can only be an apology for oligarchy.  But if we see him as a ruler, then we can judge his acts as just or unjust insofar as they uphold the substantive freedoms of those he’s ruling– such as the freedom to have two and a half months to play foursquare on the baking asphalt of schoolyards in Queens, to re-read all of the Series of Unfortunate Events books from the library across the street, to run in and out of one’s father’s grocery all day, to climb the steps to the wood-and-steel elevated platform where the M train stops and take it into the city to visit the blue whale in the Natural History Museum, to track the Good Humor truck by its song. Belloc’s assessment would find justice in Obama’s rule not in the procedures used to elect him or in the notion that he represents, in a parliamentary sense, the fifth graders of Southern Queens, but in the fact that by giving up the notion of an extended school year, he preserved the customary rhythm of their lives.

At its very end, the Regents essay abruptly shifted gears, concurring with Belloc’s assessment of government as a potential source of good, and departing from anything that sounded like Mises for Minors.  If I were a die-hard Austrian, I would find its segue from natural money production to an endorsement of statism positively sneaky. “As time went on,” the author wrote,

people formed governments. The governments began to make the money. Now our bills have pictures of presidents. Some countries have money with pictures of kings and queens. Some countries have bills that are printed in many colors. When we travel, we can trade our money with people from other countries. Using money means that we don’t have to travel with chickens, cows, or clay pots!

When I got to this part in the first reading of the essay, S. stopped me again.  “Clay pots aren’t heavy,” she said flatly. “I could carry clay pots.”

“Yeah, but what would be easier, to carry ten bucks, or to carry ten bucks’ worth of clay pots?”

We both looked at the coffee table. There were, as it happened, clay pots there: four bowls in which her father had set out cookies for us.  Wordlessly, we emptied the cookies out onto the table, and S. began tucking the bowls into the crook of her elbow.  “Yeah, I guess money would be better,” she sighed, as we put the cookies back in.  But she seemed a little disappointed.

I like to think that it was the myth of progress embedded in the essay that she was reacting to, and pushing back against: the Whig interpretation of economic development that blithely consigned barter to the dustbin of history.  I like to think it was the same part of her that recognized justice in the President’s backing off from his proposal to violate tradition by extending the school year, the same part that was awed by the idea of “good” and “bad” being in some cases matters of fact, and not opinion.

Although it may, of course, have simply been orneriness.

I frequently can’t tell the difference in myself, either.

Susannah Black is a freelance writer. After getting her BA in English literature from Amherst College, she went on to earn an MA in early modern European history from Boston University. She is an avid schooner sailor. Born and raised in Manhattan, she is now taking her stand in central Queens. She blogs at

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  1. Dear Ms. Black:

    An excellent reflection and essay. It reminds me greatly of a number of writings I enjoy from Walker Percy. Thank you!


    Jonathan Watson

  2. Aside from the misleading fact/opinion stuff, it’s also worth pointing out that this story about money emerging from an all-barter trade economy is just historically inaccurate, as David Graeber’s new book has recently been bringing to folks’ attention (see here, or here for a follow-up). Just as your S. seemed to intuitively realize, it’s pretty easy to keep tabs on who owes what to whom, so long as you’re in a relatively small community, and trading relationships are sustained over time. The double-coincidence issue only becomes a real problem when trades all need to be made on the spot, with strangers.

  3. All– thanks for the appreciation! And x.trapnel– thanks for the heads up– I’d heard him on a podcast but didn’t realize he had a book out–you’re right, his arguments could absolutely be used to make a not-totally-frivolous case for S’s instincts.

  4. Regarding the nation-state, I think the assessment is correct that the form that it historically took in Europe since 1789 saw the medieval order’s complex of intermediary institutions as rivals to be dismantled or at least subordinated to itself.

    We must, however, distinguish between the nation and the state. Despite modern nationalism’s insistence on the convergence and coincidence of the two, it isn’t necessarily the case. It certainly is not the case, particularly in the case of the nation-states of Europe, that the state exhausts the essence or identity of the nation.

    Yet, despite its genealogy, I would like to suggest that the nation-state may prove valuable today, on the one hand, as part of a hierarchy of intermediary institutions that protect tradition, family, and locality from the whims of “globalist” threats, and, on the other hand, as one of the last vestiges of “metaphysical right”: as a space devoted to a community bound together by more than just vicinity of residence.

  5. Thymoleontas,

    There are a number of descriptive errors in your claims and more than a few contentious claims.

    First, the nation-state existed well prior to 1789. It’s emergence can be dated between 1450 and 1650 with the elevation of a modern concept of sovereignty, i.e. supremacy of authority within a territory, and the sacralization of the monarch as an absolute figure of power. What happened in the late 18th and 19th centuries was not the emergence of the state, but the replacement of the monarch as the supreme locus of authority with the body politic.

    Second, you are incorrect to suggest that the state and the nation are separable. Prior to the emergence of the state, nations or societies as organic and unified bodies did not exist. Rather, there was one universal community of Christians composed of a vast multitude of heteronomous, interlocking, overlapping, constantly shifting, and hierarchically organized mini-societies — let’s call them “societates.” These societates included families, guilds, churches, etc. This arrangement priveleged the local — even legal disputes typically ended with local law trumping those of Lords. There were no nations under such an arrangement. How could one be so when, for instance, a Town was by contract under the protection of a Lord, who pledged his loyalty to a Kind, who was the vassal of another King? There was no common national identity, law, market, etc. to enforce social unity over a large area and override local authority until the emergence of the modern state.

    The state emerged in the 15th through 16th centuries. Whatever the political theorists (e.g. Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Rousseau, etc.) may have written, the reality is that monarchs consolidated their power through war making. The triumph of the crown over the local came about because monarchies were able to develop centralizing tools such as a monopoly on law and military power. This monopoly eventually came to include markets as well and resulted in national identity. The implication then is that the nation does NOT exist apart from the state, but that the state creates the nation.

    Third, your claim that the state can act to protect the family, tradition, and locality from globalism is, to be frank, naive. The state treats all communal institutions as an intermediary between itself and the individual, which can be overrided and reoriented at will. Just look at the experiments with the massive social engineering of the last few centuries through markets, laws, and bureaucracies, which have completely undone communities, inaugurating our present crisis of individualism, mobility, and social dissolution. The idea that the state can be the keeper of the common good defies all evidence. This is especially so regarding globalization, which is largely a state-driven process to begin with.

    There are a very great number of scholars I could reference on this subject, but if you were to look at one article, I would suggest KILLING FOR THE TELEPHONE
    COMPANY: WHY THE NATIONSTATE IS NOT THE KEEPER OF THE COMMON GOOD by William Cavaunaugh, a political theorist and theologian.

  6. JR,

    I did not, in fact, suggest that nation-states did not exist prior to the French Revolution. What I wished to suggest is that the French Revolution represents a turning point in the relationship between the nation and the state; that it is only with the French Revolution that the state persistently becomes an unparalleled means of perpetual revolution.

    The claim that the state “creates the nation”, while true in a few cases, does not fit all historical examples and cannot be accepted without qualifications. The example of the Jews, I think, refutes the unqualified nature of your claim. They existed in a “stateless” state for over a millennium. The Christian nations of the former Ottoman lands (the Greeks and Armenians especially) represent a significant difficulty for your claim as well. These two nations continued their national existence beyond their loss of statehood during the late middle ages. The legal category of “millet” was a recognition of an a posteriori fact on the part of Ottoman officialdom, rather than the creation of a nation ex nihilo. Similar things may be said of subject peoples in other empires. Moreover, what should we make of nations that exist in more than one state, such as the Greeks vis-a-vis Greece and Cyprus or the Romanians vis-a-vis Romania and Moldova? What should we make of the nationalist movements of the last century, whose desire for self-determination was nothing more than a desire to acquire a state of their own? These example are enough, I think, to make it obvious that the state is not always prior to nationhood.

    In regards to my last point, how should a locality defend itself and its culture, if not in league with other localities (that is, in a nation)? If we are to speak about future action, then we must propose that the purpose of the nation-state be redefined and that the state be restored to its proper place in the hierarchy of things as a bulwark for the locality. The concept of subsidiarity, which presupposes a series of structured relationships between institutions, proposes the proper relationship between family, locality, and the state.

  7. Thymoleontas,

    We seem to be talking past one another as there is a distinction implicit in my response that has not been apparent to you: the difference between the idea of a state as it is generally used and specific use of it in relation to the modern nation-state. The former includes any form of political and social organization: city-states, towns, kingdoms, etc. The latter concerns itself with the modern nation-state, which is a very recent invention. The problem in your analysis is that you confuse the two. Premodern forms of political organization are very different from the modern.

    Once this is understood, much of the confusion should be cleared up. For instance, you suggest that there are instances of premodern people groups, such as the Jews or Christians in Muslem lands, that did not live in a state per se, but still had some general sense of shared identity. This in no way conflicts with the narrative that I told: prior to the emergence of the absolute state in 1450s-1650s, political and social life was “complex” in that it consisted of overlapping societates, each with their own internal logic and largely self-governing. This “complex” space was gradually replaced by a “simple” space of one society created by the monopolization of law, the economy, and violence by absolute monarchs. With the French Revolution, there arises the concept of the nation-state, where the absolute monarch is replaced by body politics.

    The modern examples you cite can also be explained by this narrative. Allow me to cite the Cavanaugh article, which would have cleared up this confusion:

    “In the West, the state becomes the nation-state in the nineteenth century when the vertical relationship of state and individual is opened to include a horizontal relationship among individuals, an increasingly cohesive mass relationship. In the liberal nation-state, the flows of power are not simply from civil society to state, as in Murray, nor from state to civil society. The flows of power are multidirectional. In other words, when state becomes nation-state it represents the fusion of state and society. The state precedes the idea of the nation and creates it, promoting the imagination of a unitary space and a common history. But in contrast to the absolutist state, the nation-state does not merely enforce its will through coercion. In order fully to realize the doctrine of territorial sovereignty and extend governance to every individual within its borders, the participation of the many in a unitive project is essential. Nationalism becomes a popular movement founded on consent.

    Since Kohn and Hayes, scholars of nationalism have emphasized that ‘nation’, like society, is not a natural or ‘ontologically prior’ reality, but one that is invented by the state. As E. J. Hobsbawm puts it, ‘Nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round.’ Most scholars agree that nations are only possible once states have been invented, and that nations, even seemingly ‘ancient’ ones, are the product of the last two centuries. Until the nineteenth century states lacked the internal cohesion necessary to be nations. . . .

    [. . .]

    In the field of nationalism studies, there is a minority of scholars, some of them identified as “ethno-symbolists”, that wants to press the origins of nations farther back by studying the ethnic identities that are precursors of the modern nation. Liah Greenfeld, for example, dates the sense of ‘nationness’ in England to the sixteenth century, though she claims it was the only nation in the world for the next two centuries. Anthony D. Smith claims that the origins of nationalism can be traced back in some European countries to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Ethno-symbolists argue that nations were invented not out of nothing but out of pre-formed ethnic experiences and consciousness. The difference between previous cultural formations and modern nations is one of degree, not of kind. Once formed, ethnic identities are remarkably stable over generations and centuries.

    The ethno-symbolists have been criticized for defining the nation so broadly that all kinds of cultural groupings qualify. Smith, for example, has been criticized for attributing fully-developed group consciousness to premodern groups that had only vague ideas of what differentiated them from others. Smith also fails to give due weight to the lack of institutional basis for such groups, such that they did not and could not make claims to territory, autonomy, or independence. Most importantly,

    ‘nationalism is not simply a claim of ethnic similarity, but a claim that certain similarities should count as the definition of political community. For this reason, nationalism needs rigid boundaries in a way that premodern ethnicity does not: ‘Nationalism demands internal homogeneity throughout the putative nation, rather than gradual continua of cultural variation or pockets of subcultural distinction.’ Most distinctively, nationalists generally assert that national identities are more important than other personal or group identities (such as gender, family, or ethnicity) and link individuals directly to the nation as a whole. In stark contrast to this, most ethnic identities flow from family membership, kinship or membership in other intermediate groups.’

    Nationalism, in other words, demands the simple space that only state sovereignty can provide. As Geoff Eley and Ronald Suny argue, ethnic identities may be the raw materials with which the state works, but they are not simply precursors that develop in a linear fashion toward the nation. The nation represents a rupture in the history of social organization.

    The idea of the nation does not remain an elite idea, but becomes gradually more powerful among the lower classes in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Why were common people willing to sacrifice their lives for nations their grandparents had never heard of, as Benedict Anderson asks? Ernest Gellner answers this question by drawing a direct link between the weakening of smaller types of association and the growth of the idea of the nation. The loosing of individuals from traditional forms of community created the possibility and need of a larger, mass substitute for community. Loyalties are gradually transferred from more local types of community to the nation. At the same time, there is a gradual opening of the sphere of participation to the masses of people of whom the state had previously taken only sporadic notice. The rise of rights language goes hand in hand with the rise of the nation-state, because political and civil rights name both the freeing of the individual from traditional types of community and the establishment of regular relations of power between the individual and the state. Marx was wrong to dismiss rights as a mere ruse to protect the gains of the bourgeois classes. Individual rights do, nevertheless, greatly expand the scope of the state because political and civil rights establish binding relationships between the nation-state and those who look to it to vindicate their claims. The nation-state thus becomes something of a central, bureaucratic clearinghouse in which social claims are contested. The nation-state is fully realized when sacrifice on behalf of the nation is combined with claims made on the state on the basis of rights.”

    Your analysis falls into the same trap as that of the ethno-symbolists, which has led you to confuse the very specific idea of the nation with the very general reality of ethnicity.

    This should also address your final point. To criticize the modern nation-state as being unable to uphold and pursue the common good is not to criticize all forms of political organization. Just as you confused nationhood with ethnicity, you have confused the very specific concept of the modern nation-state with the very general idea of the state as a form political organization, whether the object of consideration is a city state, a kingdom, etc.

  8. If you have any other questions or contentions, I would first strongly suggest at least a quick perusal of that article.

  9. @JA.
    You should study the romanian history(all 3 provinces) to have a deeper understating of nationhood dynamics, that clearly confirms non-ethnic nationalism, prior to any notion of national-state. Yes, I am romanian.
    Although it’s true that in a way nation-state was plague by both secular liberalism and ideologic statism(fascist or leftist), it’s experience alongside the dissaperance of priviliged classes, the ascension of private capital, financial globalism and the disaster of ideologies, together got nation-state back on the track of a more democratic, more representative(at least in theory, or in a society with good civic response) and even an upholder of common good, on a more universal-values axiologic scale. That is with respect for traditions, minorities, an arbiter of real free, non monopolistic, oligarchic comercial exchange and an institutional expression of common historic experience and goals. Along with continuos rejection of global, centralized intervention and the atack on traditional or local values, for the sake of some ideologic and political instrumentalized goals concerning sexes, rights and multicultural ambiguos values.
    If one has to choose among no state, central regulated federations, libertarian view of state, autoritarian socialist state, one has to favor either nation-states(republic or monarchy) or even very decentralized local governed, middle age tribe like comunities(seems utopic), instead of those. Again in much more contemporary form that includes strong civic organizations that block oligarchic and private sources of institutional corruption, and in the same time opposing the “natural” autoritarian tendencies of nation-states. It’s easier to fight a smaller nation state issues of corruption and autoritarism, than bireaucratic megastructures, impoerialistic like US, EU or similar. That is not to small, but also not to big. Not too ethnicist, but also not to globalist, disguised as universalist. One tendency goes to xenophobia and intolerance, even in federations, the other in a form of indiscriminate tolerance, even for those that destroy the fundaments of society, ethics and (man)person.
    Like C.S Lewis says, we have to go for the community form of adherence and intearction, in order to prevent overindividualism and the dissolution of worth-to-keep, universal, traditional values, and not the collective or coercitive form of society. Our good values are not those that are better than others’ or ehtnic justified, but especially with universal justification and circulation. It’s a good thing to encounter them in all cultures, but destroying borders, suveranities, nation-states and not respectfully compete, in a simphonic manner, it’s like opening the house to anyone, for the love of good in mankind. Seems rather stupid. Mind you that those in power are the ones that know how to manipulate and control this kind of “openminded” multicultural civic attitude, in order to expand power. Nation-states cannot go to far in this. The rest are highly utopic and dangerous, never mind the intentions and declared goals.
    To over simplify, even somewhat exagerated, nation-states are yesterday tribes/clans, while federation, are yesterday megalomaniac empires. Forget about nation-states in incipient form.

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