What’s micronationalism? An introduction?


The Nations, States and Politics page

Peter Ravn Rasmussen

Micronationalism in microcosm.

In an essay elsewhere on this site, I have discussed the difference between nations and states. Let us now turn, then, to nationalism in its smallest incarnation – let us explore the phenomenon of micronationalism.

In recent years, micronationalism has ( for reasons which shall be discussed below ) achieved a certain notoriety, chiefly because of the surface bizarrerie of the phenomenon. Media reports on micronationalism seldom do more than scratch the surface of what is really going on, because the reporters so often become fascinated by the fact that adults are “playing at kings”.

Indeed, the surface impression of micronationalism is that of a number of groups of adults, playacting imaginary nations. This impression is so eye-catching that it quite often completely obscures the fact that there is a deeper current of activity in the micronational community. For some, it is indeed a game – but others are serious, to some extent, about their endeavours to create a nation.

Though micronationalism, at first sight, can seem risible, the question is: why is there ( or should there be ) any fundamental difference between a recently-imagined community ( to use Benedict Anderson’s term ) or a “traditional” community? Is there any fundamental difference, other than a durable tradition – and if a micronation should last long enough, would it not then be no different from any other nation?

Micronationalism is a fairly recent thing. Although the phenomenological roots are probably as old as humanity, that complex of activities which we presently call micronationalism has only been around for approximately six decades. The word ‘micronationalism’ has only been in use for 10-15 years (in all probability, the word has been sporadically used as a spontaneously formed neologism before that, but the current usage was introduced in the late 1980s or early 1990s).

Defining micronationalism is an extremely difficult task – particularly since micronationalism as a phenomenon spans a wide spectrum of subphenomena. Furthermore, micronationalism is invested with widely varying meanings by its participants. There is in the micronational community no single version of the semantic content of the word “micronation”.

For some, micronationalism is a mere hobby – an extended game of role-playing. Others take it somewhat more seriously, viewing micronationalism as a political simulation – their primary motivation for taking part in the micronational community is thus to gain insight into the political process, with a view to making use of this experience in a ‘real-world’ context. Yet another group takes the micronational project much more seriously – it is their ambition to achieve statehood, if possible.

Seen from the perspective of the established states (usually termed “macronations” in the micronational jargon), the micronations are an irrelevance, hardly to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, it is my contention that they do represent a significant phenomenon, symptomatic of the fundamental motivations involved in nationalism.

Fortunately, we are not hopelessly at a loss for a common definition. All of these instances of micronationalism do share some common traits. They all behave in a fashion deliberately imitative of a ‘true’ state – they have governments, citizens, laws, territorial ‘claims’, etc. This gives us a basis on which to establish a (very superficial) definition of a micronation:

A micronation is an entity created and maintained as if it were a nation and/or a state, and generally carrying with it some, most or all of the attributes of nationhood, and likewise generally carrying with it some of the attributes of statehood. Though a micronation may well have begun as a mere drollery, it has the potential ( given the evolution of a sufficiently vital national culture ) to develop into a true nation, and possibly to achieve statehood.

The concept of a “micronation” thus extends across the spectrum from a few people “playing at countries” to (relatively) large and successful ventures with all the attributes of a major nation, except for size.

Coming out of the closet.

The micronational phenomenon was, prior to the advent of the Internet, a marginalised one. Micronations, at that time, were generally mere drolleries. With the drastically expanded possibilities for communication and information, the micronational world underwent a sea-change. As with so many other groups hitherto hindered by a lack of access to print and broadcast media, the Internet gave the micronational community an opportunity for expanding its message(s) to a wider audience.

The sudden expansion of opportunities for propaganda and proselytisation led to an exponential growth phase from the mid-1990s on. Today, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of micronations, with ( unsurprisingly ) a great diversity of purpose.

At the “low” end, we find a multitude of purported micronations, each essentially a fiction, the work of a single person – yet often claiming a greater population. Though some of these nations may eventually develop into more substantial ventures, the majority of them are no more than mere amusements.

At the “high” end, we find micronations which have achieved many of the trappings of actual statehood. They have territory, population, a more or less stable political system – they mean business, in short. The ultimate ambition of these nations is to achieve that which has been termed “the Holy Grail of micronationalism”: formal acceptance by the established international community as an equal, with all attendant privileges, the most coveted being a seat in the United Nations.

It goes without saying that for a micronation to actually get that far would require an extraordinary set of circumstances. I do not consider it likely that we will see this happening in the foreseeable future.

Looking at micronationalism as a whole, then, we see a very broad spectrum of activities, spanning from the trivial to the significant. To the serious researcher, it is all interesting – as part of the larger nationalist phenomenon, reduced to the smallest component elements, micronationalism can provide valuable insights.

In many ways, micronationalism represents the ultimate reductio ad absurdum of Wilsonian self-determination.

Long term prospects

In the opening of this essay, I asked whether there was any difference of kind between micronations and “real” nations.

The answer, in my opinion, is: not if the micronation has managed to establish an actual “national” culture – which is to say, a culture that can unite the constituent members around a common goal, an ideal of community and togetherness. This may be true of any quasi-tribal structure, of course – it is even, momentarily, true of rioting football hooligans. Nevertheless, the litmus test must be whether the “nation” in question can muster the twin characteristics of durability and coherence.

Whether micronationalism, still in its infancy, manages to produce such durable and coherent cultures from among its many experiments, remains to be seen. It would not surprise me, though. The potential is certainly there.

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