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What is a Nation?
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Print capitalism created nations

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Marxism had predicted that nation-states would fade away as it triumphed. By the 1980s the opposite seemed to be happening and Benedict Anderson sought to understand the enduring presence and appeal of nations by examining their origins.

The Argument

Benedict Anderson argues that print capitalism (the business of selling books, newspapers, etc) fuelled the rise of nationalism.[1] From the late Middle Ages, Christendom as a coherent and universal political unit was declining, as was the status of Latin as a sacred language underpinning a pan-European culture. [2] Vernaculars like French, English, and German increasingly emerged as publishing languages, fuelled by printers and booksellers who sought to tap into new markets of non-elite, non-Latin speaking groups. [3] In the process, they established standardised forms of these languages in which speakers of different dialects of the vernacular were able to communicate. This created communities united through their ability to read this new standard vernacular, separated from the communities whose vernaculars they could not read. This created a territorial community whose boundaries were delimited by the presence of a particular language. These sentiments of community first transformed into nationalism during the revolutions in North and South America. There, local Creole elites had a sense of common territorially-based identity, fuelled by shared newspaper cultures and experiences as colonial administrators. This provided a basis for cooperation and justification for revolutions which were launched in defence of local interests against centralising European monarchies. [4]

Counter arguments

Ideas of some sort of cohesive national identity identified territorially and separated from other equivalents seem to have been prevalent in pre-modern states such as England, Scotland, France, Japan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. This pre-existed vernacular printing on a large scale as well as the decline of religion providing a coherent cultural framework. Arguments which centre nations on a created linguistic and cultural homogeneity fail to provide for nations which have no politically dominant lingua franca, such as Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland. [5]


[P1] The rise of print capitalism fueled development of vernacular publishing, and the decline of pan-cultural sacred scripts. [P2] The formation of new reading publics encouraged the development of new conceptions of human community delineated along linguistic lines. [P3] The new sense of community was used to justify political independence and therefore the idea of the nation-state.

Rejecting the premises

[Rejecting P1] There is evidence of identities we can call nation in societies before the development of print capitalism. [Rejecting P1]There are examples of nations with no dominant linguistic or cultural group.


This page was last edited on Thursday, 5 Mar 2020 at 14:56 UTC

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