How to make a nation

  • Themes: History

In 'Making a Modern Political Order', James J. Sheehan attempts to offer a history of the nation state as we know it, from its origins in other, now mostly unfamiliar, forms of political order to its emergence in the democratic age as nearly the singular expression of political community.

The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825).
The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825). Credit: PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo

Making a Modern Political Order: the Problem of the Nation State, James J. Sheehan, Notre Dame University Press, £45

Most orderly nation states teach their citizens something about the history of their people and place. It might be presented as something of a fairy tale, with some of the nation’s unpleasant truths hidden from view; others convey their history as a kind of morality play, where we moderns have overcome the evils of our national pasts. Yet most of us won’t be taught much about what forces made the nation states that populate our world.

In Making a Modern Political Order, James J. Sheehan attempts to offer a history of the nation state as we know it, from its origins in other, now mostly unfamiliar, forms of political order to its emergence in the democratic age as nearly the singular expression of political community. Despite its relative brevity, the book draws on a lifetime of historical inquiry and generates insights from the history of political thought, anthropology, and sociology to make an informative account, one that helps us better understand some of today’s most pressing political challenges. Sheehan emphasises the effects of how the move away from aristocracy and toward equality shifted western peoples’ sense of what makes government legitimate. He also shows how this changed the sense of what politics is for.

Early in the book, Sheehan establishes the source of the greatest institutional differences between states in early modern Europe and the forms of government that are now seen around the globe. He notes that the great premodern political theorists are often misread by assuming a scale to politics these thinkers would have dismissed as proper to only great, tyrannical empires like Persia. As Sheehan puts it, ‘intimate communities’ of order – ‘villages, manors, landed estates, towns and cities’ – were the basic building blocks of political life. Each of these places maintained its own distinctive customs, shared languages, and principles of justice, which seldom extended far beyond where members lived and spent most of their lives. Interest in these communities rarely wanes:

‘We are fascinated by, and some of the time long to return to, those small, confined collectivities that seem to have provided a degree of security and stability absent from the present. Nostalgia always points us toward what we have lost and would like to have again, or at least to what we think we would like to have again.’

Enthusiasts for localism, integralism, and communitarianism tend to share aspects of this fascination. Sheehan offers perspective on just how challenging the project of recreating this sort of order actually might be – and suggests that these forms existed in a time where both technology and expectations of what a polity is for were quite different.

While they covered all aspects of life, offering a form of spiritual depth and relational security that very few moderns can enjoy, these communities were nonetheless fragile and unstable. Everyone inherited a sort of permanent membership in a community as well as a well-defined social role within it; most people would live their lives close to where they were born, and in most cases would have high expectations of trust, as well as a deep knowledge of the entire community. The more unpleasant side of this situation is that everyone either conformed to the community’s ideal or became an outcast with few places to turn. Despite their virtues, Sheehan emphasises that these communities were easily ‘disrupted by natural or man-made disasters’ that left chaos and people who belonged nowhere in their wake. Controlling the disorder that displaced and desperate refugees created became an increasing problem for Europe’s monarchies – one that their own ambitions for growing integration and marshalling of resources would at least partially solve.

Sheehan reminds us that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the major European states were at war more than they were not – but success in conquest created its own problems in ruling over newly acquired territory. For monarchs that wished to expand, the distinct communities that made up each European nation and the unreliability of maps left them in a state of relatively deep ignorance concerning their own nations. Here, Sheehan does the reader a service by pointing to the ways that looking to only one element of state formation leads us to faulty conclusions: without understanding the lack of detailed information states possessed about their territory and people, it is easy to reckon them more ‘absolute’ than they really were; looking purely at political theory might equally confuse readers about what sorts of states were really thinkable in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries.

The necessary connection between administration and knowledge created substantial incentives for rulers to adopt better cartographic methods and to conduct accurate censuses of their disparate populations – though on a scale not seen in the West since the Roman Empire. And, as states became more focused on what James Scott has called ‘legibility’ – the ability to see and understand facts about their territory and population – they grew in power and scope.

Marrying notions from Scott to arguments advanced by other students of state formation, such as Benedict Anderson, Sheehan surveys the ways that political thinkers and theologians as well as monarchs themselves developed political theories to justify and legitimate their expanding realms, but he also emphasises the ways that institutions, such as the national census and universal enforcement of commercial issues like weights and measures, helped reinforce the idea of the state. So, too, with all the other ways states communicated with their people in writing, and the print culture that more generally transformed society:

‘Maps, censuses, codes, and constitutions… were part all part of that long, immensely significant sea change that marks the shift from an oral to a written culture based on print… For state-makers, as well as for ordinary men and women, the legibility of both knowledge and rules became an increasingly indispensable source of legitimation.’

This greater understanding of their polities also had another effect in that it helped dislodge ‘political power from its place in a sacred order of meaning and devotion’. Yet changes in the polity that aimed at the growth of monarchical power generated unexpected consequences. Somewhere in this process of rationalisation and of the establishment of recognisable forms of law and bureaucracy, the majesty of aristocracy began to fade, as did the notion that monarchy was an inherently legitimate form of government.

By the eighteenth century, Sheehan points out how the ground on which politics was conducted shifted dramatically:

‘In the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, more Europeans were thinking (and talking and writing) about politics than ever before… The culture of print expanded to feed people’s appetite for information and to provide them with an opportunity to debate the issues of the day… Taken together, these various institutions and publications created a ‘public sphere’ outside of the established order of the old regime.’

The nation, in other words, originally developed to supplant the wrap-around communities of yore, had in some sense, returned power to these discreet places. Indeed, in the American experiment, there was a marriage of nation and local community through federalism. But for the most part, Europe’s story is one where nation states unified and undid older conceptions of community.

Sheehan develops the familiar story of how the great revolutions of the late eighteenth century came to pass. He offers a useful contrast between the American and French Revolutions, observing that their real differences had to do with the degree to which each revolution understood legitimacy to flow from democratic representation.

One of the book’s most intriguing observations is that voting in a democracy functions in much the same way as grand public rituals are meant to cement the legitimacy of monarchies:

‘In democracies, elections are the equivalent of coronations. Just as the coronation both expresses and transcends the monarch’s human nature, elections express and transcend the people’s divisions, simultaneously acknowledging and overcoming the political order’s central tension. The coronation affirmed that one king was dead, but another lived; elections are a persistent feature of democratic political life because they are supposed to serve as an essential reminder… that the many can be made one.’

Even dictatorships hold elections, Sheehan notes, and he argues that this suggests that being represented in a vote as one people has become the most essential way of maintaining legitimacy as a political order.

After discussing the French Revolution, Making a Modern Political Order deepens its engagement with the ways the growth of representative government influenced events. One important example is found in decolonisation. When the ‘distinction between civilised and barbarian states that had sustained nineteenth-century imperialism’ collapsed, ‘expectations about self-determination became global’. Thus, for Sheehan, it was not just postwar exhaustion that led to the end of European empires, but a kind of moral uncertainty driven by democracy and a growing sense that self-determination mattered for everyone.

This sensibility also shapes our understanding of what states do and how they behave. Everyone uses the same trappings and symbols, as well as expectations about how states look: ‘it has, in other worlds, created a world in its own image’. While substantively, politics around the world pursue radically different goals and endorse a range of ideological ends, most everyone uses similar ‘democratic’ language to justify themselves.

Sheehan concludes with a pointed challenge – that readers must recognise the limits of the state: ‘States create an appetite for order and justice they usually cannot fulfil; democracies promise a consensual politics they can rarely deliver’. He argues that the dream of ‘permanent solutions’ itself is the source of a great deal of current misery. It is hard to dispute this wisdom. Though he does not say so outright, Sheehan seems to suggest that much of the current populist moment is a direct result of elites cloaking unpopular aims in the name of ‘democracy’ while relying on bureaucracies and international agencies to achieve their ends. Leveraging various kinds of ‘expert’ knowledge, these elites tend to value uniformity and policies determined at the level of the nation state rather than those that leverage real diversity or natural experimentation. And this may be one of the keys to our modern discontent – the nation state’s efforts undermine many of the echoes of small, deep community that most of us yearn to recreate. But for Sheehan, their sheer scope is part of the issue as well:

‘One of the characteristics of the modern political order is that, from its origins in the eighteenth century to the present, some have imagined permanent solutions to its drawbacks and efficiencies. These millenarian visions have taken many forms… What they all have in common is a willingness to imagine a world without politics.’

Sheehan recognises the necessity of the nation state but chastens the globalist ambitions of Davos Man and the experts’ pretentions to synoptic knowledge. Making a Modern Political Order offers the simple wisdom that politics is unavoidable, and it reminds us of what a fragile achievement liberal order really is. We cannot transcend politics, but Sheehan is equally clear that the temptation to escape it will also always haunt us.


Brian Smith