The sovereign is dead. So too the nation?
Updated: Aug 7
Disclaimer: I'm sure there's many flaws in the below; I'm not 100% convinced by it myself, though can't quite work out why. Please do feel free to tell me so. However, I think the idea being teased out overall has some substance though, which I hope will be of interest if you read to the end.
What is a nation?
Within the humanities, one often turns to Anderson’s definition as a rule of thumb: an imagined political community, imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.
Imagined: because no member of the nation will ever meet every other fellow-national, and yet they imagine the group to include people they will never meet.
Community, because a horizontal fellowship is thought to hold between each member of the group.
Limited, because no nation has ever imagined itself to potentially include all humanity in the way that, say, Christianity occasionally has. There is us, and there is you.
Sovereign, because as the Enlightenment went on, it became clear that these imagined units could be used as a justification for why they were to be ruled together.
Since Anderson’s definition was established, medievalists and classicists have found earlier evidence for the formation of nation than these.
Political, interestingly, is not defined in the original definition except by context: that the idea of nation is an inherently political idea, spanning ideas of governance, culture, and more.
All of these facets together make up a nation. While the definition is contested in some aspects, it more or less holds water.
In combination, these facets incline themselves to a form of nation that is in some way, whether via direct vote or a leader(s) who claims to represent the people’s will, responsive to the nation. This is in contrast to the former justifications of the monarch being able to crush opposition by force, or religious doctrine, both of which paid attention to possible dissent, but did not have to legitimise themselves with reference to it.
What is a dead sovereign?
The sovereign is the head of state; a symbol of the nation.
But what we have seen over the past weeks is not merely the mass outpouring of grief featured in various parts of the media, but also a possible sign of a broader trend.
The nation is no longer an imagined community, for our communities are formed of things that are not bound by national boundaries.
Who observed her death?
Many people, in different ways.
There are traditionalists, whether in matters of formal solemnity or Anglican faith, from far beyond the UK and Commonwealth.
Modernists, who thronged to public spaces to make offerings to a dead celebrity, with flowers, corgis, and Paddington Bear themed merchandise and food; grave goods for an Anglican.
The Fandoms, the Modernists’ heirs, seeking to see and be seen online, putting out solemn commentary to their 30 followers, or sharing light-hearted tributes.
The Dissenters, from courteously silent republicans to those striking out with jokes, anger, overt celebration and mockery.
This group often occupied the porous border between ‘British cyberspace’ and the international beyond, notably those from Ireland and the African diaspora with their traumatic relationships to British governments.
There is also whatever the heck this is: https://twitter.com/ichlugebullets/status/1568317330945343489
Offline, I’m sure that all camps would make judgements based on context. It would be a foolish traditionalist who walked into a Dublin republican pub and demanded a solemn reverence; likewise a thoughtless dissenter who stood among sorrow-struck neighbours and cracked jokes, while both might try to express their feelings in other ways.
In person, we judge such things based on our current company. It is online that our separate rooms are unfortunately merged at times of great emotion.
But the online world is real.
This is not the tutting (traditionalist) essay arguing that we have lost proper reverence, though the predominance of Modernists and Fandoms does indicate that the reverence that supports the monarchy’s constitutional function has more or less been lost.
Nor is it noting that we have lost any sort of communal mourning ritual, although that is also true and a problem for our offline nation. Humans die; it is one of our fundamental facts. We want to mourn them, ideally with others for support, and a lack of consensus about how to do that (even among those who want to) poses a substantial cultural challenge.
But the response to the loss of a symbol (for better and worse) of the nation suggests that in an online world, old fashioned nations are starting to lose their force.
What makes a nation easy is if almost everyone its members meet, read, and hear from is of the nation. As the idea of ‘nation’ started to be the main organising force of European states, it was a time when there was limited travel, or access to information from outside one’s immediate region.
What makes it hard is if the group starts to formulate self-identity more in other ways. Historically, one might equally look at the European diplomatic aristocracy, with a shared lingua franca and classical education, or the International, uniting a movement on class lines, not borders, both of whom posed different types of threat to the nation state model.
In modern times, more time is spent online. That might be for work (such as the hyper-international worlds of global finance and trade), or communities of interest around particular hobbies, media, politics, topics, and more.
Others have written more on the radicalising effects of social media bubbles. But what was of greater significance in that moment of mourning is what it showed about online identity.
Not only is it primarily formulated within a fandom lens (for our feeds mix all forms of content with gay abandon), but it is fundamentally not formed across national and geographic lines. Although linguistic lines matter (to the extent that online translators do not overcome that), discourse on any topic has become trans-national.
This means that cultural values we once might have formulated within the nation now draw from other sources.
Has this happened before?
This is not unprecedented. In the post-war period, mass media and imports led to the Americanisation or Coca-colonisation of British life.
Along with American media came American cultural concepts, like the idea of one British colleague that not cancelling sports events would allow overly-repressed British people to ‘let it all out’.
Immigration also led to new ideas about mourning and obligation. This was particularly obvious at Elizabeth II’s funeral, which was markedly Anglican, then Christian, with a representative from each of the country’s other major religions invited (though not a specific non-believer representative, for obvious reasons). It was a glaring example of the gulf between the traditional faith and that of the nation’s members.
More broadly, different ideas about how we collectively mark the universal experience of death have been obvious throughout the pandemic years, shaped (among other things) by different traditions on these islands.
Both of the above changes were absorbed into ideas about the nation under labels like multiculturalism, with some success. Britishness has never been a monolithic identity (see also: what happens when I, a southern-accented person, go to Yorkshire). Change is not inherently bad; my very existence is a product of this multiculturalism. But these precedents do seem worth noting.
The importance of geography
What allowed this absorption was, in part, that they were part of a shared cultural moment. Like it or not, your neighbours were now not all white (it is in areas where they still are all white that the greatest problems of racism are typically found), and your kids preferred coke to ginger beer.
On the inverse side, you could be not-white, but you were being not-white within the British Isles. You could buy Coca-cola, but you did so in a geographically British shop.
Both changed the national identity, but were tied to socio-economic changes within the geographic territory of the nation (immigration was encouraged, American goods available in shops etc. etc.). People imagined non-white British communities, non-Anglican British communities, denim-wearing British communities.
But they were still imagined as British, because they were neighbours, children, and more. Thus they were celebrated as British, and became part of the imagined community's self-image.
That is to say, to Anderson’s initial imagined, political, communities, limited, sovereign, we must add what was tacitly obvious to him as a part of ‘sovereign’ at the time: geographical.
There is not a nation state in the world that does not, in one form or another, hold territory. Before the nations of Israel, Italy, and Germany existed as states, they nonetheless thought of themselves in terms of territory.
For it is terribly difficult for a state to be justified by the nation of its people if those people are not, in fact, there; a state that laid claim to those beyond its borders would obviously run into opposition to those old-fashioned states that laid claim to all those within their borders.
What’s different this time?
The problem for the nation is simple: the majority of people’s lives are spent in online spaces, which are all of the things a nation is except geographical and sovereign.
Since the majority of their lives are spent online, either in work communities or recreational ones, those bonds beyond geography are increasingly more important to subjects than national ones.
Take, for illustrative purposes, the Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) fandom, a popular game enjoyed by anarchists to (allegedly) Michael Gove. Predominantly popular in Anglophone countries, its community also includes those with English as a second language, or other languages.
Before the internet, its communities were small and isolated, drawn to their local game stores and groups. Now, however, they are predominantly joined on the internet, to the extent that the game’s creators are seeking to reform the hobby as an internet-first activity. Many of its players engage primarily over the internet, either playing with others, or just watching each other play
The community is imagined: none of those in the community will ever meet all other players, but they still hold a sense that all of them are part of one whole.
It is political, for my playing of D&D asserts some things about my interests and values which others do not share. Obviously, what exactly those things are might be contested within the group, but that is true of all nations.
It is a community, for it imagines a bond between all of its members.
It is limited (As the meme goes, “If you get it, you get it”).
What it is not imagined as is sovereign, for any one member of that community will also be a member of communities of work, other hobbies, family, identity and more, and subject to other legal authority. But it is often an important one; more core than the ‘nation’ portion.
The internet has allowed such bonds, once small and geographically local, to be formed across continents at all levels of society. From sexual fetish groups to obscure conspiracist cults, your morning Google search to the increasingly global labour market of flexitime Work From Home, small local shops shipping abroad to global finance freed from all borders, our bonds are not constrained by geography.
This is not a moral problem. But I suspect it is a problem for the nation state.
Problems for the nation with internet peoples
The internet allows people to form themselves more or less as they wish, and be formed in turn, beyond their geographic limits.
None of these communities necessarily bond people to other Britons on the island. Indeed, politics shows how the argument is now not necessarily between competing visions for a shared group, but of competition between groups.
(Honesty compels me to highlight that an often-convincing Marxian analysis of politics has often framed politics as a competition between class groups. Thus the International’s existence.)
For the nation state, the more individual citizens’ identities are formed in relation to online non-geographic groups, the more they are not formed in response to the nation.
The nation’s endorsement is what authorises the state. It is why nation is traditionally a good justification for a democracy.
Without a nation, a core legitimising principle of most governments of our world is lost. What is left is hollow parody of what came before, with not a single state quite sure of what will follow.
What is British now?
This is what the sovereign’s death shows us.
When the Queen died, few online communities were composed solely of people under the authority of Crown Law, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, Crown Courts and more.
Instead, we saw the unhappy spectacle of Venn diagrams intersecting; of diverse groups locked in the same room.
Of traditionalist mourners clashing with celebrity fandom mourners, for both were part of the same political community.
Of celebrity fandom mourners bombarding dissenters, who had posted as they did because they were from former colonies and were not part of traditionalist community.
Some communities responded to the death with open joy; a culture of responding to the death of figures one dislikes for whatever reason with authenticity, honesty, and (to some extent) delighted pushing of buttons and breaking of taboos.
This culture is likely amplified by online algorithms rewarding the hottest takes with more engagement, for all that it upsets people.
All these groups arguing and feuding. All engaging online in internet-type reactions of making and sharing memes, hot takes, sage commentary, treating the death of the sovereign like any other event. It had more in common with #DestielConfirmed! than the death of George VII.
It was truly striking was how different the communities’ response was. Some still thought solemn Anglican mourning best, weighted with symbols of nation, faith, and crown.
But many others followed with the customs of celebrity: of the symbols of the dead figure (Bring me my Paddington merchandise, put on my corgi, I have longings for novelty balloons in me), more akin to a tradition of grave objects than anything ‘normal’ in Britain’s spiritual life.
Online, the D&D community saw shots of the young queen in a 1950s outfit with a sword and saw character inspiration - if you’re within the limits of the community, you’d get it.
But all of this might indicate the weakening strength of ‘nation’. It does not matter what unites us there, for it is geography, and almost nothing in our emotional or intellectual lives is geography, for all that it remains important for trade and weather forecasts.
Our lives are mostly online.
What next for the state?
If I had to make a prediction, I would make a call that the nation state as we have known it will be destroyed by the internet.
Almost all of what is important about the nation as a community is destroyed by watching its citizens form important parts of their identities substantially free of national borders, subject to different legal jurisdictions for each site (though mostly California on the Anglophone internet).
And yet I do not want to predict the loss of the state itself, for it serves useful functions for large, complex groups of humans.
Also, those who hold the monopoly on the legitimate use of force, and a number of idealists, are generally rather keen to keep hold of that force.
It will need to legitimise itself in other ways, as it did after iron fists and divine right.
Perhaps technocratic: your state offers you health and security competently.
Or multi-national megastates: your identity is necessarily plural, and you are part of a larger whole.
Or cyberpunk-corporate: we offer you better benefits than other states; do you want to risk moving away from here?
Or else anarchistic: we provide you with what you need for your lives online; all you need from us is freedom.
Right now, bureaucratic technocracy is a strong tendency in Britain. There aren’t many truly unifying traditions (The Queen represented one of the last broadly respected figures in public life), but we (mostly) have the paperwork. Those who don't have the paperwork, or who can have the paperwork taken from them, are more readily expelled from the state and nation.
Perhaps the alternate future is the nightmare in which 20th-century fascism ends up being seen as an early, failed experiment towards the future, in the same way as we view some early modern attempts at forming nation states in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is impossible to know what will come, but the magic that ‘nation’ offered as a legitimisation for democracy might well be waning.
What replaces it will be shaped by the online world, for we are all free to form more important identities to us in online communities, even as the climate crisis looms.
All that unites is that we are online on a dying planet, forming our own communities to be whatever we want.
For now. Corporations and governments are spotting what’s going on and moving to lock people in their digital systems.
But for now, like in the golden age of formative nations and the Commune, we can say one thing:
The Internetionale unites/divides the human race!
Ye gods, but I’m sorry.
P.S. This is a really good read: https://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/politics/article/the-queue-queen-elizabeth