Nationalism Today

As I prowl my social media (and I do stress that it is my social media, as I am certain other people’s are coloured by some radically different ideologies and opinions) I see countless posts deriding nationalism as the cause of all our ills in the world today. This is easily done too, from where we are in the world today. It has become very easy to say that nationalism is bad. After all, look at Trump and Brexit and the resurgent right wing of Europe. All of these are nationalist and all of these are bad, right? Well yes and no. They are certainly imagine themselves as nationalist, but perhaps we should ourselves not be so quick as to brand the banner under which they stand as something uniformly bad. However, I am getting ahead of myself here.

Firstly, we ought to nail down what we mean by nationalism as it is one of these words that everyone knows but, if asked to describe, would struggle to define. I don’t want to get to erudite in my description, and there certainly is a wealth of literature with which I could use to describe nationalism, but I do want to sketch out at least a solid enough idea that we can use as a basis from which to continue our discussion (and I do welcome the discussion). In attempting to describe nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, one of the founders of nationalist studies as an independent and interdisciplinary field, observed that nationalism has five main usages: “(1) a process of formation, or growth, of nations, (2) a sentiment or consciousness of belonging to the nation, (3) a language and symbolism of the nation, (4) a social and political movement on behalf of the nation, and (5) a doctrine and/or ideology of the nation, both general and particular.” (Nationalism, pp. 5–6) This certainly provides us a good framework for how the term is used, but it also does us a great favour when it comes to defining nationalism: that it is very much something separate from the nation. If we go over all of Smith’s five usages for nationalism, we will find that they each revolve around the nation but also establish nationalism as something separate from the concept of nation. In his attempts to isolate nationalism from the concept of the nation and discuss the former in as much isolation as possible, Smith frequently leans on comparisons to religion and perhaps such comparisons are not unfair, such as how both use a specific narrative interpretation of history and destiny to give their adherents meaningful tools with which to interpret the world (Nationalism, p. 144). Indeed, adding in this religious dimension may provide us with the best understanding of nationalism as a cult of the reified nation, or as an ideological and narrative institution through which a community can act ritually for and through a nation. However, this raises a new problem: if nationalism is distinct from the nation, what is the nation?

Again, I am moving fast here to not get trapped in the academic discussions on this topic. Certainly hundreds of pages could be (and have been) spent describing various typologies of nations and how these typologies in turn relate to separate typologies of nationalism and how this comes to shape the ontological and epistemological discussion of politics and history in general, but in the effort of keeping things short I will simply offer the highlights. One of the more influential definitions of the nation comes from, of all people, Joseph Stalin himself, who said that the nation is “an historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (Marxism and the National Question, p. 61) Stalin has clearly taken pains to make his definition both objective and positive, meaning that which communities meet the title of nation is up for as little discussion as possible and allows a community to be defined as a nation based upon its own merits. However, despite the strengths of this definition may be too difficult to use due to the rather intangible qualities of the criteria: how historical does something need to be to be historically constituted? How stable do the people have to be and for how long? How do we know if they have a common psychological make-up? Indeed, many of these points create a perception of nationalism that is rather solid and ahistoric, something which does not change or adapt. Other attempts have been made to offer a more flexible definition of the nation, such as Anderson’s definition of the nation as “an imagined political community — and imagined as both as inherently limited and sovereign” (Imagined Communities, p. 6), though these definitions often fail by over-correcting Stalin’s understanding too much and creating a definition which is too open and resulting in virtually every human community being able to be described as a nation. For his part, Smith tries to find a middle group by describing the nation as “a named human community occupying a homeland, and having common myths and a shared history, a common public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members”, (Nationalism, p. 13) however Smith himself concedes that such an understanding may not be broad enough as it fails to include diaspora nations. I would therefore offer an edited version of Smith’s definition, partly to rectify the issue that he observed in his own understanding of the term and partly because I myself am not as convinced on the territorial dimension as being necessary, and describe the nation for our purposes as a socio-cultural construction based upon an institutional foundation and a narrative of the nation. The socio-cultural dimension provides the binding agents, usually things like a shared language or an ethnic identity, while the institutional dimension provides the means by which those binding agents are constituted and given every day importance and meaning. The nation therefore becomes something that people live in, act within, act on behalf of, and are aware of.

Don’t worry, that is all the dense stuff out of the way and, if you are still with me, I promise it gets lighter from her. Oh, and don’t worry, all of this has a point I promise.

So, with these understandings in hand, what can we say about nationalism today? Certainly it has its dark elements as we see today, though perhaps these elements are not enough, by themselves, to demonize all nationalism with one broad stroke. Said certainly makes an effort to do so, separating nationalism from its more morally dubious sibling, nativism. This separation, though perhaps not quite as stark as Said makes it out to be, nonetheless provides a useful typology for us to help understand the national supremacists of today as nativist nationalists who have not only reified and glorified their own nation but have done so to an extent where they believe it sits above others. Therefore when Trump, certainly the loudest nativist of our modern age, says “America First” he is also saying that “Africa is a shithole” (I am of course paraphrasing, but he did say both of these things so I am not removing any context from it). The two exist as the same thought (indeed, the second is the unthought to the first) and in the mercantilist-style thinking of people like Trump the glorification of the American nation (or whatever nation the nativist in question is a part of) must come at the expense of other nations (or indeed of the other). Nativism relies on a strain of nationalism that dictates ‘our’ moral superiority over ‘them’, that ‘we’ are good and ‘they’ are bad simply because ‘we’ are ‘we’ and ‘they’ are not ‘we’, and such moralizing (if we want to call Trump incoherent rants moralizing) is nothing short of problematic as “no merit lies in preferring good to evil when we ourselves define the meaning of these two words” (Todorov, Fear of Barbarians, p. 197). However, nativism, even if we view it as a type of extreme nationalism and not as distinct from nationalism as Said does, is not a contingent part of nationalism. Indeed, Said explains that “moving beyond nativism does not mean abandoning nationality, but it does mean thinking of local identity as not exhaustive, and therefore not being anxious to confine oneself to one’s own sphere, with its ceremonies of belonging, it’s built-in chauvinism, and it’s limiting sense of security” (Culture and Imperialism, p. 294). We can therefore seek to cast out the demagogue nativists without rending ourselves from our nationalism and the attachment it brings.

But is nationalism even worth saving? Certainly it has done good things in the past. Fanon speaks to great length of the role nationalism played in the period of decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, when nationalism provided a key ingredient in energizing former colonials into fighting their oppressors. Regardless of the outcome, which in many cases was not good, we cannot argue that nationalism didn’t at least provide an inspirational role for former colonials to cast off the narrative (and all too often physical) chains placed upon them by imperial powers and to define their own identity. As Fanon puts it, nationalism offered that first step in awakening a political consciousness of the oppressed colonials and to reject colonial narratives that say the colonies were “a den of savages, infested with superstitions and fanaticism, destined to be despised, cursed by God, a land of cannibals, a land of “niggers”” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 150) and instead assert a national cultural connected with “the collective thought process of a people to describe, justify, and extol the actions whereby they have joined forces and remained strong.” (Wretched of the Earth, p. 168) Fanon here is addressing the element of nationalism and the nation that is practice, as we should remember from our understanding of the term established above, and that requires us to continue act within the context of the nation. In such a way, nationalism does more than give us meaning, but also helps binds us and helps to do away with the alienation that modernism can bring. Fanon goes a step further, letting nationalism, though not the nation, give way to a deeper national consciousness, an awareness of the nation and its place, which he argues “is alone capable of giving us an international dimension…[as, for example] the birth of national consciousness in Africa strictly correlates with an African consciousness” (The Wretched of the Earth, p. 179) Nationalism is therefore allowed to evolve, and the reification of the nation is set aside in favour of a deeper understanding of the nation and its place amongst other nations. Perhaps this seems all too byzantine and theoretical, but the practical implications are very much real. After all, I would imagine that Fanon would see value in an endeavour like the European Union and its goal of building an extra-national community out of a multitude of nations. Indeed, this is what I would argue is the benefit of nationalism, or rather of a soft nationalism that is distant from Said’s nativism and allows for such a national and international consciousness to take route.

So I hope I have made clear the negatives and positives of nationalism and have made clear the distinction that exists between the sort of nationalism that Trump espouses and the sort of nationalism that allows for a project like the EU to exist. However, I am not quite done yet. Rather, I want to continue this discussion just a little further and touch on one last subject. At the beginning I mentioned how I saw many comments on social media that criticize nationalism. Certainly, some of these posts are criticizing the more nativist aspects of nationalisms, of the latest comments Trump made about how there are good neo-Nazis or whatnot, but many also come from a different place. This ‘different place’ is particularly evident when one reads the comments below a story on an independence movement that talk about how such nationalisms are bad and exclusionary and how these nationalists should be happy within the context of the state. An examination of the right to self-determination aside (as I believe this piece is long enough), I would like to point out simply that these comments bear a striking resemblance to comments made in the past to defend imperialism. This is perhaps simply their nationalist ideas speaking against the nationalism of others, indeed it must be frustrating when territory you see as belonging to your nation is claimed by another nation, but it may also be a pure imperialist logic speaking through. Indeed, a comment section about Catalonia or Scotland can often sound a lot like the comments made by Cromer, the former British governor of Egypt, and his explanation for why he opposed Egyptian self-rule and fought to maintain it as a subject of the British Empire: “Free native institutions, the absence of foreign occupation, a self-sustaining national sovereignty: these unsurprising demands were consistently rejected by Cromer, who asserted unambiguously that “the real future of Egypt…lies not in the direction of narrow nationalism, which will only embrace native Egyptians…but rather in that of an enlarged cosmopolitanism.” Subject races did not have it in them to know what was good for them” (Said, Orientalism, p. 37). My point in saying all this is that we ought to check ourselves. As I hope I have illustrated, nationalism and the nation can provide a positive platform for which a better international community may be built, though that is not to say that nationalism is perfect either. As I have highlighted, it does have a darker nativist side too it, however we ought to check ourselves when we lay out criticisms of nationalism as well. Are we doing it because our ontological narrative is coloured by a sort of nationalist imperialism that sees territory as ours and regardless of those people on it? Perhaps indeed the strongest voices against nationalism are themselves espousing a different and dark version of nationalism themselves. At some later point I will right more on this and how imperialism and nationalism go hand in hand, especially in contemporary cases of secession, but for now I will digress. For now I will leave this thought by saying that not everyone who talks against nationalism has a secret imperialist agenda (indeed I hope I made that clear when I talked against certain types of nationalism myself), but we should nonetheless be reflexive about our own motives when we level criticisms of nationalism.

If you have reached this point you may have noticed that I have drawn no hard conclusions, and indeed I have avoided doing so. Rather, the point of this piece has been to speak against hard conclusions. I have tried, hopefully successfully, to convince you that nationalism is not inherently good or bad but rather is a specific type of narrative institution (itself built around a different institution, the nation) that can be used for good or bad ends (in that way, the comparison to religion is once more very applicable). I began by offering an image of nationalism and the nation as something complex and evolving, something which we are a part of and act within, precisely because it is complex and evolving. The nation, whatever nation or nations you may be a part of, is not something static. It is something which has and will change. The same is true for the nationalism that surrounds that nation. I know right now for many of us it seems like dark times (again I will mention Trump, Brexit, and the rise of the far right in Europe all as examples of how nationalism seems to be bringing out the worst in politics and human culture as a whole), but we ought to keep in mind that this is not permanent. Human communities like the nation can change, and perhaps collectively we can make them change and push them out of this darkness we find ourselves in. Remember: nationalism can lead to both nativism or to liberation through a national consciousness. It is up to us, collectively, to endeavour to ensure the latter is realized and the former is rejected.

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Brendan McKee

As both a political researcher and enthusiast, I write to unpack the complexities of current affairs and attempt to grow the conversation. Feel free to join me!