Rethinking Nationalism Through Foucault



The modernist theory of nationalism asserts that nationalism emerged as a product of modernity in the last two centuries owing to some economic, political, and social processes such as capitalism, French Revolution (1789-1799), industrialization, secularism, and urbanization, etc. In this regard, one cannot ignore that nationalism has an enormous impact on foreign politics, domestic politics, and most importantly the perceptions of individuals throughout the world in the last two centuries, which is still very influential. This paper aims to examine this influence through the analyses of Michel Foucault on modern power in order to demonstrate how nationalism became an unnoticeable part of daily life. The most salient overlapping points between these two are that they examine modernity as the starting point and accept modern power as a productive structure, however, there are also many other common points between them, which are aimed to be examined in this paper.

Keywords: Nationalism, Foucault, Modern Power, Regime of Truth, Disciplinary Power

1. Introduction

Unlike primordialism, the modernist theory of nationalism claims that nationalism emerged as a product of modernity in the last two centuries owing to some economic, political, and social processes such as capitalism, French Revolution (1789-1799), industrialization, secularism, and urbanization, etc. (Özkırımlı, 2010: 72). Ernest Gellner states that nationalism is not a product of the nations; it creates the nations (Gellner, 1992: 105). He defined nationalism with the following statement: a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent (Gellner, 1992: 19). Eric J. Hobsbawm accepts this definition by adding the political duty of Ruritanians, which refers to members of the imaginary central European country. This political duty asserts that members of the nation should submit their allegiance and loyalty only to the political authority that is considered to represent the nation, that is, the state, at the expense of forgetting other affiliations, especially in situations of war-like national danger (Hobsbawm, 1992: 9). He agreed with Gellner, and emphasizes the concepts of the artifact, invention, and social engineering by stating the following statement: nations do not make states and nationalisms but the other way round (Hobsbawm, 1992: 10). Gellner asserts that the emergence of both states and nations is not a universal necessity since they emerge depending on some conditions that are independent from each other (Gellner, 1992: 27).

According to Gellner, human beings experienced three stages such as the pre-agricultural (the hunter-gatherer), agricultural (agro-literate), and industrial. In the first one, there was no room for a political division of labor, which creates the state. In the second one, the state took place in most agricultural societies, therefore, one can say that the state was optional in the agricultural stage. Differently, the state was inevitable in the third stage since the industrial society was oversize; it required a very complex and multidimensional division of labor, and mostly centralization (Gellner, 1992: 25-26). Like Benedict Anderson, Gellner accepted culture as one of the most important bases of nationalism, and he claims that there was no cultural homogenization in the agricultural societies, thus, nations were not able to occur. On the other hand, culture became more important in industrial societies because of the social and regional mobility (Özkırımlı, 2010: 100). The industrialization era, which started in the 18th century, is an age where continuous economic development, growth, and the ideal of unlimited increase in wealth and production, thanks to its high technology that allows mass production, is an age. In the age of industrialization, every individual should have the right to work in a line of business and any cell of cooperation; the phenomena of dependence on the social class born into it and the inertia in the social hierarchy must be eliminated (Gellner, 1992: 33-34). The industrialization age and the accompanying social and regional movement and the democratization process require individuals to be produced as educated and loyal citizens; in Etienne Balibar’s words, it has made it mandatory for them to be raised as “homo nationalis” (Balibar, 1991).

Thus, this paper studies the process of raising homo nationalis at first, then it will be studied Foucault’s analysis of the modern power by especially referring to regime of truth and the disciplinary power. One of the main aims of this paper is an investigation of reflections of nationalism on the daily life of individuals, which are so-called inherent and instinctive. Therefore, under the subhead named Rethinking Nationalism Through Foucault, this paper demonstrates the overlapping points between nationalism and Foucault’s analyses by asserting that nationalism is a part of the regime of truth under the control of the disciplinary power.

2. Literature Review & Research Method

The linkage between nationalism and the analyses of Foucault is mainly studied by referring to biopolitics, racism, and nationalist movements of colonials. Since there is no direct analysis of Foucault about nationalism, studies in this field use the method of literature review by establishing common analyses of both. Similarly, this paper examines nationalism and Foucault by using the method of literature review in order to study, analyze, and compare the studies of the most prominent figures of the modernist theory of nationalism and the most prominent studies of Foucault. This paper aims to demonstrate how nationalism became influential and unnoticeable part of daily life, therefore, different from other studies, this paper focuses on the analyses of Foucault on daily practices under regime of truth and the disciplinary power. The most salient Turkish study that belongs to Aret Karademir examines the linkage between sexuality and nationalism through the biopower and the disciplinary power by asserting that analyses of the modernist theory nationalism require an aspect of sexuality and analyses of Foucault requires a nation (Karademir, 2018). One of the most useful English studies, which belongs to Ieva Zake, aims to provide a theoretical framework for nationalism with the thoughts of Louis Althusser and Foucault through the Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) and the bio-power (Zake, 2002). While Angana P. Chatterji examines Hindu Nationalism with the concept of biopolitics (Chatterji, 2004), John Gledhill examines the ethnic nationalism in Eastern Europe through the biopower with the example of Romania (Gledhill, 2005). Despite the fact that studies in this field are limited, all the works cannot be mentioned. Therefore, lastly, it is useful to mention Mark G. E. Kelly, who studies the concept of biopolitics, state racism, and nationalism with the examples of Australia and the USA (Kelly, 2004).

3. Homo Nationalis

Balibar advocates that a social formation must construct individuals as a homo nationalis, homo economicus, homo politicus, and homo religious with daily practices and apparatuses in order to be created as a nation (Balibar, 1991: 93). To begin with, the state must raise reliable citizens who will voluntarily present their loyalty and devotion to it in an age where social class hierarchies are collapsing, and authorities are losing power. In addition, these individuals are citizens who, with the democratization process, can have a say in the management of the society, become taxpayers, and form the working class (Hobsbawm, 1992: 80). Moreover, this social and regional mobility has led to another necessity, standardization. People should speak the same language as the people they encounter in the industrialized areas they migrate to; have gone through similar basic educational processes in order not to experience integration problems when they join the working class. In this regard, Gellner makes an analogy between modern society and the modern army (Gellner, 1992: 60-61). In short, individuals had to be raised as patriotic and loyal citizens, which are aware of their political duty that refers to forget other affiliations such as social class, religion, sect, or race to exercise their right to vote for the welfare of the country they belong (Hobsbawm, 1992: 9, 82-83). In this regard, a national language and a standardized formal education were requirements. These requirements were a product of the centralization of the state; also, they strengthened the centralization of the state. Thanks to the improvements in transportation such as railways, communication such as the telegraph in the 19th century, the linkage between the state and its citizen, and the linkage between the central and its remotest regions consolidated as never before (Gellner, 1992: 69; Hobsbawm, 1992: 81). Lastly, the most effective way was the division of ‘us’ and ‘others’ to throw together several affiliations under the national flag against foreigners, which was important in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries because of the wars (Hobsbawm, 1992: 91). In this context, the reasons why the state had to raise homo nationalis can be understood better.

In the case of raising homo nationalis, there are mainly three dimensions that are interrelated such as the national history, national language, and national culture. In the case of the invention of national history, Balibar states that the continuity of nations is always presented and emphasized; in this regard, he defines the creation of a nation as a project, which involves retrospective illusion over the centuries. This illusion provides two things. First, the people of a nation suppose that their nation continues to exist on a stable territory, under a stable name by passing down an unchangeable essence. Secondly, people suppose that the first notion is destiny, which refers to the only one. Thus, Balibar summarizes this historical invention with the following statement: project and destiny are the two symmetrical figures of the illusion of national identity (Balibar, 1991: 86). Furthermore, Hobsbawm asserts that history is invented by chosen, designed, envisioned, advocated, and systematized (Hobsbawm, 1983: 13). In the case of the invention of the national language, it is significant to address Benedict Anderson. Despite the fact that there were several different dialects, one of them was selected as a national language, which was very crucial for the realization of the ‘imagined’ communities (Anderson, 1991). There is another important effect of the national language on nationalism since it is one of the crucial determinants of the nation and/or nationhood. For instance, the German poet Ernst M. Arndt described German borders as places where German is heard in his famous poem “Was ist des Deutschen Vaterland” written in 1814 (Dumanoğulları, 2021). Related to the invention of national history, and doubtlessly related to the invention of the national language, the national culture is invented. In other words, the national identity reflects in the dances, songs, folk songs, idioms, proverbs, etc. Thanks to these inventions; the national consciousness, national heritage, collective memory, national symbols, and national body are constructed. The daily reflections of these constructions can be exemplified by national holidays, national heroes, coins, national flags, national anthems, tales, myths, names of neighborhood and street, a common national architecture, and sacred sites, etc. (Hobsbawm, 1992: 91-94; Billig, 2005).

The main source of these inventions is the standardized, compulsory, and formal education under the same authority, which is the state. Gellner clarifies the importance of legitimate education with the following statement by referring to Max Weber: the monopoly of legitimate education is now more important, more central than is the monopoly of legitimate violence (Gellner, 1992: 72). Owing to this standardized legitimate education, national identity, which includes the above, was both invented and spread. Moreover, the national identity becomes concrete unnoticeably with a cognitive, moral, and emotional standard for individuals, which is discussed later. This national identity is also reproduced with and within the family. Individuals begin to become subjects of these nationalist inventions with generations that have already become the subjects of these inventions. There is also a discussion on whether nationalism involves the construction and reproduction of the traditional family structure with respect to gender roles[1].

These analyses so far are not sufficient to clarify the enormous effect of nationalism on foreign politics, domestic politics, and most importantly the perception of individuals. Hobsbawm explains how nationalist ideologies have become so influential with the concept of the invented traditions. According to him, nationalism should be examined by considering the invention of the traditions for a comprehensive analysis (Hobsbawm, 1983: 14). He describes this concept as a set of practices, which are governed by directly or indirectly rules, and a set of rituals by seeking to infuse certain realities, identities, perceptions, etc. through repetitions, which are mostly emphasized the continuity of the past at the same time (Hobsbawm, 1983: 1). He mainly divides the invented traditions after the industrial revolution into three interrelated groups. The first one establishes the concept of membership of real or artificial communities. The second one establishes the relations of authority and institutions. The last one establishes the infusion of beliefs, norms, and practices (Hobsbawm, 1983: 9)[2]. However, this paper seeks a deeper analysis to ground the enormous influence of nationalism. In this regard, it is crucial to address Foucault.

4. Foucault’s Modern Power

To begin with, it is crucial to explain Foucault’s definition of power. According to Foucault, power is not an institution or a structure; it is a name given to a complex strategic situation in a given society, not a specific power some have had from the outset (Foucault, 2010: 72). Power is a strategic mechanism that restrains forces and prevents their randomness, with negative and sometimes positive effects. In this regard, Foucault examines five forms of power. The first one is the juridico-discursive power, which is based on violence and oppression, embodied in the king’s body (Foucault, 2010: 65-67). The second one is the norm power that excludes violence, puts life in the center, qualifies, measures, and evaluates it in a hierarchy, and binds to itself the knowledge that allows it to do so (Foucault, 2019: 231). The third one is the disciplinary power that approaches the human body as a machine, aims to educate the body, reveal its powers, develop its abilities, and gain maximum benefit from the body by constantly increasing its productivity (Foucault, 2010: 102; Foucault, 2019: 169-170). The fourth one is the regulatory power, where abundance, birth and mortality rates, health level, life expectancy, and all conditions that may affect them gain importance, and a series of interventions and regulatory controls emerged at the point of taking responsibility for them (Foucault, 2010: 102-103). The last one is the bio-power that encompasses both disciplinary and regulatory power, refers to human biology, draws its boundaries in the human body, aims to increase human powers, encompasses life in all areas (Foucault, 2010; Foucault, 2019).

Secondly, it is significant to clarify Foucault’s analysis of modernity. According to Foucault, in the age of modernity and its effects such as industrialization, urbanization, the increase in population and movement of the population, and the increase in production and wealth, pre-modern power structures, whose sole function is law and prohibition, are healthy, educated, disciplined, normalized, continuous observation. Individuals and populations who have a work ethic, who want to obey the laws, who have embraced the sanctity of private property and their work, have lost their functions because they do not have the worry of producing. Thus, the modern power sought mechanisms that would enable the ruling individuals and populations to manage with efficient and rational methods in line with the needs of modernity and industrialization. He explains the change in the concept of power caused by modernity with the following statement: we pass from a technology of power that drives out, excludes, banishes, marginalizes, and represses, to a fundamentally positive power that fashions, observes, knows, and multiplies itself on the basis of its own effects (Foucault, 2005: 48). In this context, modern power has a productive structure, which produces not only “negative concepts or mechanisms of exclusion”, but also “positive concepts, mechanisms, and practices” (Foucault, 2005, pp. 44, 48).

At this point, regime of truth should be clarified since regimes of truth that establish the subject, and all the power procedures that establish them, constantly exchange the truths that power creates and continues to create with changing subject positions. In the endless exchange between subject and truth, the subject maintains its existence as long as it accepts its truth, and the truth conforms to the position of the subject it determines (Molacı, 2020: 24). Foucault asserts that truths are specific inventions of power relations. Power then produces truth, determines object fields and righteousness rituals. According to him, all truth claims are products of power that exist wherever language, discourse, or representation exists (Molacı, 2020: 23). On the one hand, power subjects individuals in the sense of extracting a field of knowing from them, on the other hand, by keeping individuals in a position where they can no longer be subjects, it transforms them into objects. At the discourse level, power intervenes in the spheres of knowing in order to control the production of subjectivity and constantly rewrites the truth (Molacı, 2020: 27). Foucault advocates that truth, like the subject, is problematized, constituted, changed, and transformed; but at the same time, it establishes, changes, and transforms the subject in its inextricable bond with power relations that produce and support it (Molacı, 2020: 21). There is no doubt that the basis of regime of truth is the relationship between power and knowledge since another significant analysis of Foucault is the necessity of accepting that knowledge and power directly involve each other and that the other cannot exist unless one of the two is absent from the idea that knowledge can exist as long as it is abstracted from power relations (Foucault, 2019: 65).

It is crucial to address the disciplinary power to understand better the reflections of regime of truth on individuals since the field of application of disciplinary power is the individual, who is subordinated to habits, rules, orders, the authority (Foucault, 2019: 201), through its “body, time, everyday gestures and activities, and the soul since it is the seat of habits” (Foucault, 2019: 200). The aim of the disciplinary power is not to subjugate individuals to the laws and prohibitions of the sovereign; to educate, discipline, normalize them, and to make them “bodies that can be benefited, transformed and developed” through continuous observation, profiling, imposing norms and habits on individuals, and physical and health education mechanisms. The disciplinary power makes individuals the object of knowledge, observation, and classifications made in accordance with certain norms; constructs them as information objects that can be analyzed, classified, described, and studied under the name of the case study by cataloging its idiosyncratic past, its personal growth, and the conformity/unconformity of its desires, habits or inclinations (Foucault, 2019: 200-204, 208-211, 233, 235, 255-256). In short, power produces, encompasses, subordinates, transforms, stigmatizes, disciplines, classifies, directs the individual, its soul, body, daily life, habits, sexuality, truth, normality and abnormality, and knowledge. In this regard, Foucault states “Maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are.” (Foucault, 2005: 68). According to him, the aim should not be about to save the individual from the state and its relatives; it should also include saving the individual from the kind of individualization associated with the state by rejecting this kind of individuality that has been imposed for centuries (Foucault, 2005: 68). As the spatial counterpart of these analyses, Foucault examines schools, monasteries, military (for example, barracks), industrial institutions (for example, factories), and hospitals with examples of strict and very detailed regulations. These institutions are national institutions. In other words, the language of these institutions corresponds to the official language derived from the language of the ethnic majority. In addition, these institutions have historically played a major role in transforming society into a community of people who speak the same language and have been trained in the same web of myths, symbols, or practices. Institutions such as schools, prisons, and the military are direct; The institutions of the free market economy indirectly imposed the official language on individuals. Therefore, the subject Foucault refers to corresponds to the national subject produced by national-disciplinary power and speaking the official language.

5. Rethinking Nationalism Through Foucault

To begin with, the most salient overlapping points between nationalism and Foucault’s analyses are that they examine modernity as the starting point and accept modern power as a productive structure. Both of them asserts that the modern power produces docile and loyal citizens to control them, to gain maximum benefit from individuals who refer to the labor force, to increase the wealth, to provide obedience to authority, to control the birth rates, and to control the emerging developments caused by the industrial revolution and its relatives, etc. One cannot ignore the contribution of nationalist ideologies to these aims. Also, both of them emphasize the importance and the potential of the educational institutions and the daily practices. The process of construction, and the form of nationalism has a multidimensional and complex structure that feeds each other and affects each other. Owing to the construction by modern power, individuals are inclined to perceive their nations, nationalities, and thus, nationalism as ancient, gut feeling, normal, as-is and to-be. This illusion of nationalism infiltrates human consciousness and the human body through religious and educational institutions, news agencies, family, discourses of politicians, TV shows, movies, flags, idioms, proverbs, coins, tales, national holidays, trade unions, sacred sites, names of neighborhood and street, legal systems, art, literature, dances, folk songs, sport, social media, political organizations, and military, etc. In this regard, it is useful to emphasize the following statement of Foucault: the human body was entering a machinery of power that explores it, breaks it down and rearranges it (Foucault, 2019: 211). While nationalism can be observed in the individual with its soul, body, daily life, habits, sexuality, truth, normality, and abnormality, the modern power, which mostly indicates to the state and its relatives in this case, produces and reproduces nationalism in silence. Individuals are less inclined to notice these infiltration ways of nationalism. They are becoming docile, obedient, and disciplined by the modern power. They are inclined to perceive nationalism as truth under a regime of truth. Furthermore, they are inclined to be sensitive about being not named unpatriotic or traitor since the responsibility of defending their nation and nationality and being nationalist are constructed as truth and/or normal. The analyses of Foucault on habits and daily practices and Hobsbawm’s concept of the invented traditions are crucial to understand the reproduction of nationalism better. Also, it is useful to refer to the concept of emotional contagion by Christian von Scheve. Nagehan Tokdoğan establishes a linkage between this concept and nationalism by stating that objects of emotion, which refer to symbols, the illusions of the national history and national sites, start the emotional contagion by becoming visible in the cultural area and daily life and adopting by the society (Tokdoğan, 2018: 42). In the light of these, this paper asserts that nationalism is one of the products of the “policy of coercions that act upon the body, a calculated manipulation of its elements, its gestures, its behavior” (Foucault, 2019: 210), and a part of regime of truth that established, controlled, and transformed by the modern power.

6. Conclusion

To conclude, this paper advocates that nationalism and its relatives such as nationalist ideologies, national identity, nationalist institutions, national history, national lifestyle, and nationalist symbols, etc. are invented, constructed, produced, reproduced, and transformed by the modern power. They are established under regime of truth owing to especially the disciplinary power in silence. Individuals are severely, comprehensively but insidiously exposed to these productions and reproductions thanks to the capability of modern power. Thus, studying, analyzing, and investigating nationalism can be tough. Therefore, it is useful and significant to readdress to the following statement of Foucault: maybe the target nowadays is not to discover what we are but to refuse what we are (Foucault, 2005: 68).

Cemre Maral

Milliyetçilik Çalışmaları Staj Programı


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[1] For more on family, see Zake, I. (2002). The Construction of National(ist) Subject: Applying the Ideas of Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault to Nationalism. Social Thought & Research, 25(1/2), 217-246. For more on gender, see Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender & Nation, London: SAGE Publications, Nagel J. (1998). “Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and Sexuality in the Making of Nations”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 21 (2): 242-269, and Charles, N., & Hintjens, H. (Eds.). (1997). Gender, Ethnicity and Political Ideologies (1st ed.). Routledge. For more on sexuality, see Karademir, A. (2018). Foucault ve Ulusalcılık. Kaygı. Uludağ Üniversitesi Fen-Edebiyat Fakültesi Felsefe Dergisi (30), 159-171. doi:10.20981/kaygi.411477.

[2] For more, see Hobsbawm, E. (1983). Mass-Producing Traditions: Europe, 1870-1914. In E. J. Hobsbawm, & T. Ranger (Eds.), The Invention of Tradition (pp. 263-307). New York: Cambridge University Press.


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