Nationalism as a figment of our imagination

Postnationalism Prefigured: Caribbean Borderlands
By Charles V. Carnegie
Rutgers University Press
New Brunswick , NJ , and London

In the opening chapter of his new book, Charles V. Carnegie describes in vivid detail a morning swim on a beach in his native Jamaica — the warm water, the cloudless sky, and string of bright buoys.

But what made the morning so memorable was not the delightful exercise; it was the disturbing comments he overheard from beach attendants after the swim.

They were arguing about his paternity, discussing whether his parents were black or white, and then speculating about a range of potential deficiencies he might possess. As an albino growing up in the Caribbean, it was a discussion he was not unfamiliar with. In colloquial Jamaican, an albino of African ancestry is called a “dundus” — and is the object of stereotype.

“What the dundus lacks is visible blackness in any of its permissible shadings,” writes Dr. Carnegie in Postnationalism Prefigured: Caribbean Borderland s. “He is seen as lacking, reflecting poorly on, or letting down the race.”

As an introduction to a book about the “borderlands” where nationalism, race, and globalization intersect and often disastrously collide, the story may seem out of place. But the interjection of personal narrative — along with an examination of other individuals, groups and even nations that exist just beyond or between traditional boundaries and territories — is what makes this new scholarly volume so penetrating.

“The Jamaican dundus and albinism more broadly are symbolic forms embedded in a wider social discourse whose geographical and temporal boundaries shift from Jamaica , to the wider Caribbean, to the United States and from the late eighteenth century to the present,” writes Dr. Carnegie. “The marginalized position of the dundus, and the taboos surrounding him, offer a site from which to question the inclusiveness that collectivities of race and nation claim.”

Drawing extensively on both his own experiences as an anthropologist and a wide-ranging study of current literature in the field, Dr. Carnegie examines the entire concept of the nation-state as well as the importance of race and even religion in the state's structure and integrity.

He concludes that nationalism is an “imagined” thing, built not on human or geographic reality but on a flawed ideology that has gradually taken hold in the world largely because of its power to organize industrial society. Yet the nation-state concept is built on inherent contradictions, Dr. Carnegie writes, such as its exclusionary nature.

“Nationalism both presumes and demands a fundamental sameness, whether through a common pledge of loyalty to a set of civic principles or through supposedly shared primordial characteristics such as language or ethnicity,” he writes. “This presumption of homogeneity sets up both external and internal oppositions.”

“Minority populations that are marked off, devalued, or otherwise displaced within existing states begin to see the formation of new nation-states as their only available recourse,” he continues. “[T]he primacy given to the principle of nationality has made it a far greater force for disintegration than for integration.”

Dr. Carnegie, a professor at the prestigious Bates College in the United States , examines the nation-state through the lens of anthropology — and his initial focus is on marginalized peoples of the Caribbean , such as albinos and runaway slaves.

In one chapter, for example, he discusses in some detail the lives of “speculators” — the Caribbean term for a class of itinerant traders who play a key, if under-acknowledged, role in ensuring the steady flow of goods and services between the far-flung islands of that region.

The important point about speculators is that they are “transterritorial,” writes Dr. Carnegie. “They move freely between city and countryside; their work takes them routinely from one village to the next; they travel back and forth between different nation-states; they advance the interests of capital as well as those of the peasant sector...”

As such, he writes, “speculators and others who work feverishly on the margins violate the precepts of the nation-state.”

And so, in the same way that the existence of albinism calls into question the nature of race, speculators and others on the margins call into question the nature of the nation-state, Dr. Carnegie writes. “With hindsight, we now see that carving up the world into independent countries without simultaneously addressing inequities in the global system has merely legitimized the confinement of peoples to particular places.”

Unlike scholars who are content to analyze without offering answers, Dr. Carnegie suggests there is a new and cohesive vision of community that can replace nationalism as a framework for integration. “The need for an embracing vision of humanity's oneness that can fulfill the ideals, reward the trust, and engage the capacities of the mass of the world's peoples is evident,” writes Dr. Carnegie, “but it has become more conspicuous in the wake of the stunning events now known as 9/11.”

In a final chapter, titled “World Community Imagined,” Dr. Carnegie draws on his own belief in the Bahá'í Faith to outline a new paradigm for global integration.

“I believe that race and unbridled nationalism ought to be ‘relegated to the limbo of obsolescent and forgotten doctrines,'” he writes. “One possible answer to this dilemma may be found in the universal framework conceived by Bahá'u'lláh, which is being actualized in the Bahá'í world community that represents a microcosm of humanity: over 2,100 nationalities and tribes living in more than 120,000 localities in more than two hundred countries.”

Most significantly, the Bahá'í community manages to simultaneously value unity and diversity. “In contrast,” he writes, “most of humanity's working models operate on a principle of diversity decoupled from unity. Conflict and competition are central ordering metaphors for much human interaction.”

The Bahá'í teachings also offer an alternative to the dominance of western consumerism and transnational capitalism.

“The Bahá'í community has long been involved in a gradual process of seeding, incubating, and nurturing worldwide an attachment to a richly textured practice of global community independent in origin but nevertheless in harmony with a wide variety of histories and cultural values — a global system less vulnerable than most to expediency or whim,” he writes.

The Bahá'í community has also developed a unique local to global axis, he writes. “The family and local community are especially valued and nurtured; yet these loyalties are also linked to wider cultural, national, and planetary ones and grounded in a clear conception of the unity of humankind.”

He concludes by urging scholars to examine the Bahá'í community for themselves as they search for new ways to understand issues related to nationalism, globalization, race and religion.

“[T]he movement's potential has as yet barely been detected and is little understood,” he writes. “In part, this is because it bubbles up simultaneously from every obscure corner of the planet.”

In a world where the nation-state is under assault from a wide range of trends — from terrorism to global environmental degradation to the rise of multinational corporations — Dr. Carnegie's book stands as a refreshing and positive analysis. His methodology and critique are thoughtful and original — and his suggestion that answers to such problems might lie in religion — and especially in a new and sometimes overlooked religion — is both brave and breathtaking.