The basic deception and self-deception practised by nationalism is this: nationalism is, essentially, the general imposition of a high culture on society, where previously low cultures had taken up the lives of the majority, and in some cases of the totality, of the population. It means that generalized diffusion of a school-mediated, academy-supervised idiom, codified for the requirements of reasonably precise bureaucratic and technological communication. It is the establishment of an anonymous, impersonal society, with mutually substitutable atomized individuals, held together above all by a shared culture of this kind, in place of a previous complex structure of local groups, sustained by folk cultures reproduced locally and idiosyncratically by the micro-groups themselves. That is what really happens.
But this is the very opposite of what nationalism affirms and what nationalists fervently believe. Nationalism usually conquers in the name of a putative folk culture. Its symbolism is drawn from the healthy, pristine, vigorous life of the peasants, of the Volk, the narod. There is a certain element of truth in the nationalist self-presentation when the narod or Volk is ruled by officials of another, an alien high culture, whose oppression must be resisted first by a cultural revival and reaffirmation, and eventually by a war of national liberation. If the nationalism prospers it eliminates the alien high culture, but it does not then replace it by the old local low culture; it revives, or invents, a local high (literate, specialist-transmitted) culture of its own, though admittedly one which will have some links with the earlier local folk styles and dialects.--E. Gellner (1983) Nations and Nationalism, 57
What the first paragraph of the quoted paragraph of Gellner's classic text makes clear is that on Gellner's picture a certain kind of liberal individual -- the atomized individual who works in an anonymous, impersonal (mass) society (hereafter the atomized individual )-- is an intended byproduct of nationalism. This kind is often treated as a liberal fiction worthy of contempt by liberalism's or neo-liberalism's articulate critics (e.g., Communitarian, Thomist, or Marxist), sometimes with disparaging nods about Hobbes (as founder of possessive individualism) or Smith (as source of all stupid ideas one may wish to attribute to economists).
This connection between liberalism and nationalism as such is not very surprising as such. After all, some of the most interesting 19th century liberals (Mill (recall), Mazzini (recall), Sidgwick) were nationalists of some sort or another (Mill, perhaps, instrumentally). But, of course, the kind of liberalism they advocated was not of the atomized individual sort which goes against they interpret nationalism (in fact, Mazzini's version of liberalism incorporates quite a bit of Idealist inspired corporatism). Few would accept the atomized individual individual as their aim or as a true characterization of social reality. In fact, what follows is fully compatible with the thought that, in practice, even liberal individuals have many important connections to others, including sub-national and transnational groups. (Gellner allows this.) Even so, I wish to explore what follows if we take Gellner's analysis of nationalism and its byproducts seriously. (One reason to do so is that Gellner's analysis correctly and thoroughly avoids understanding Islamic fundamentalism as something archaic or non-modern.)
One implication of Gellner's position is that modern liberals also practice deception and self-deception. (To be sure, in the book Gellner is not very concerned about liberalism.) That is liberals understand themselves as robust pluralists about human possibility and many even recognize fundamental pluralism over values. Liberals take these as facts (as well as important aims). We understand societies as constituted by fundamentally heterogeneous ways of life. One may even say that the liberal, technocratic obsession with consensus formation is an expression of anxiety over so much diversity.
Yet, on Gellner's view liberals are deluded in two ways. First, liberals think that our ideas shape human history whereas whatever liberalism we have is a byproduct of other forces. (In fact, he thinks that ideas matter remarkably little to the development of modern society.) Second, liberals understand themselves as embracing human variety, but industrial society aims at standardized and homogenized human beings and requires this to function ever more smoothly. Instead of human diversity, we get standardized humans who become so by receiving many years of generalist and fairly similar educations. This makes possible open-ended human and economic growth (these become increasingly intertwined)--the true goal of modernity.
From the perspective of human history humans have never been more homogeneous and standardized. Gellner, who signals his indebtedness to Adam Smith on many other points, is here picking up a thought that worried Adam Smith. But he goes beyond Smith by seeing that the human-machine in the modern industrial economy is primarily a manipulator of symbols. (That's compatible with Smith's anthropology, but not something Smith emphasized.) For, in fact, modernity (if we may use that term) is characterized by a drive to ever increasing amounts of standardization in the factors of production (which generates positive externalities, efficiencies, etc.) which inter alia also include language, culture (in a broad sense), and communications. A Gellner-style interpretation of modern free-trade accords, for example, is that these are fundamentally about setting mutual agreeable standards (as opposed to tariffs, etc.): "society and its inescapable implications will continue to ensure that men are dependent on culture, and that culture requires standardization over quite wide areas, and needs to be maintained and serviced." (120) Where he goes wrong is (and he could have picked this up from Foucault) that this process must be maintained by "by centralized agencies;" (120) a lot of it can be farmed out and devolved to interested parties and self-monitoring.
One nice implication (although it may also be thought a weakness) of Gellner's analysis is that cultural values and economic goals are not seen as different areas of human existence. All politics is debate over values and always also de facto a debate over the structure of the economy and vice versa. For cultural issues are always connected to economic interests if only the economic interest of the group: what matters is who gets to decide what cultural standards are the shared standards (this point is familiar to those who get exercised about the debates over the EU's attempts to label goods and foods).*
To be sure, the view just sketched is compatible with surface variety, and even the development of liberal anti-nationalism. But because liberals buy into the gospel of growth, which presupposes common cultural goods and standards, they thereby always reinforce the engine of nationalism or other versions of cultural homogeneity (this is a trope among critics of liberalism). So, on this picture nationalism is not just an intermediary stage in economic development (to kick-start it), but always a live possibility fueled by the liberal's embrace of economic growth.
*Gellner also provides one with a road-map to understand the EU's failure; while there certainly is a shared elite culture among EU technocrats and many of its citizens, the EU failed to generate a monopoly on cultural production and education (despite the Bologna standards) and language(s).