We do not live in monocultural states. Our modern states are multicultural and include people with different life-plans, comprehensive doctrines, and perceptions of the good-life. As such, the concept of the nation-state is outdated and so are nation-building policies. If ever states were monocultural, they no longer are. Now states are multinational. But how did the now outdated idea of the nation-state came about? By reading the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau we can get an insight into the thinking that established what we today describe as nation-building policies.

The state and the nation are two concepts that have been combined, creating the modern understanding of the nation-state. The theoretical origins of the nation-state are found in Rousseau’s idea of the general will. Rousseau, in the Social Contract, writes:

So long as several men united consider themselves a single body, they have but a single will, which is concerned with their common preservation, and the general welfare.

Rousseau revolutionised the relationship between individuals and authority. The authority lay in the will of the people, and not on the will of a king or a despot. The concept of the “general will” is the self-rule of the people. The people are the state and the state reflects the will of the people. When understanding the state as the embodiment of the general will of the people, those who deviate from the popular will, are challenging the state, and diversity of wills is threatening the welfare of the state, and in effect, the well-being of the people. Rousseau explains what happens when the general will is undermined:

When the social knot begins to weaken; when particular interests begin to make themselves felt and small societies to influence the larger society, the common interest diminishes and meets with opposition, votes are no longer unanimous, the general will is no longer the will of all, contradictions and disagreements arise, and the best opinion no longer carries the day unchallenged.

Therefore, according to Rousseau, the people are the state, and when the prevailing view of the common good is challenged the state is in jeopardy. This is so, because the state is the nation and the nation embodies in itself a shared understanding of the good. The state therefore, is aligned with the nation, and it encompasses the values and life-plan of the dominant cultural/national/ethnic group. This is why measures need to be taken in order to safeguard the general-will. Those measures are what we today call “nation-building,” which is the cultivation of a common set of values, ideals and conceptions relevant to a common polity.

The communal aspect of Rousseau’s understanding of the state is described in the final parts of Emile, where he provides a reformulation of the political theory advanced in the Social Contract. Rousseau might have been a social contract theorist, but his idea of the contract amongst individuals is communal rather than atomistic. This is obvious through his definition of the body-politic which, as he describes, is the outcome of the contract.

Each of us puts his goods, his person, his life, and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and we as a body accept each member as a part indivisible of the whole.

Rousseau understood that the development of the consciousness of the “general will” was not a straightforward affair and so he introduced the concept of the lawgiver in the Social Contract. The lawgiver is an imaginary perfect man, whose role is to help individuals evolve from the state of nature and enter into a social contract; in effect, the lawgiver is the deus ex machine which shows people (the members of a future common state) their common identity and shared interests. The lawgiver will transform the individual from a solitary being, to a member of a community. That community is the state. There is no public space beyond the state. The only alternative to the state, according to Rousseau, is the family, which, as it is demonstrated in the raising of Emile, provides the moral capacities necessary for the participation to the public sphere.

Once the body-politic has been identified as the nation and the state as the embodiment of the nation, it is easy to understand how the modern understanding of the state as a nation-state emerged. Now, I shall proceed to address the methods employed for the maintenance of the state; methods that have become known as nation-building measures or techniques.

The most lucid description of nation-building comes from the political historian Eric Hobsbawm, who describes nation-building as “a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repetition, which automatically implies continuity with the past.”

The historian Eric Hobsbawm

The historian Eric Hobsbawm

According to Hobsbawm’s version, nation-building relies upon invented traditions; upon the idea that the members of a collective are bounded by a historical and cultural past, whose continuity is maintained through time, and as a result, its continuity to the future is necessary for the maintenance of the self-image of the individual, which is directly related to that of the nation.

Nation-building cannot be defined as a specific set of policies aimed at the maintenance of a sense of commonness, since different states have promoted different policies of cultivating a sense of common belonging. Therefore, to reduce the concept of nation-building to a set of practices, would be to open the doors for disagreements over its exact nature.

I take nation-building to be the state-sponsored promotion of policies whose aim is to promote the initial point of commonness of a collective and invent further points of intersection. I claim that the foremost feature of nation-building is to promote the initial point of reference, because, as Tamir rightly argues, one collective cannot declare itself as a nation merely based on the will of its members.

Nationhood derives from something common like religion, history, language or traditions; as such, nation-building is the promotion of one of these features and the invention of new ones. Predominantly, the main aim of a nation-building policy, as Tamir explains, is to “to create the illusion of a ‘natural’ unit with a long, mostly glorious history and a promising future.”