Thursday, 24 December 2015


An ideology that does not have all the answers.

I  was in Asia when I read the New York Times obituary of Benedict Anderson posted above.

I confess I had never read any of his books but was struck by the huge contemporary relevance of the quotations from him in this  fascinating obituary.

Many of the disturbances in the world today are driven by the phenomenon Anderson spent his life analysing.....nationalism.

For example,
  • it is nationalism that lies behind the tension between China and its neighbours over islands in the South China Sea.
  • It is English nationalism that lies behind the UK effort to detach itself from the EU, while still enjoying its benefits.
  • It is French nationalism that is fuelling the growth in support for the Front National.
  • And it is, of course, a particularly virulent form of  American nationalism that lies behind the anti Muslim, and anti Mexican, rhetoric of Donald Trump and friends. 

Nationalism frequently defines itself by the people it is AGAINST, rather than by the values it is FOR.

US Senator Cruz exemplified  this aspect of nationalism when ,in a recent speech, he called for "moral clarity" in US foreign policy, defining moral clarity as knowing how to identify America's enemies!

Unfortunately nationalism often has to pick on violent events to provided cohesion for the "imagined community" that is the "nation".

In Ireland, for example, we are embarking on a year of celebration of killings and death, in the Dublin rebellion of Dublin in Easter Week 1916,  and this rebellion, and the Proclamation that launched it, is being presented as the  "founding event" for the Irish nation. 

This is historically inaccurate.

The Irish national identity was built,  much earlier, by peaceful agitation, by people like Daniel O Connell, Charles Stewart Parnell and others, much more than it was, by the killing and dying of the 1916 to 1923 period. In fact O Connell's movement was arguably the first peaceful mass democratic movement in the world. 

But I fear that will not be not the message that will be conveyed to Irish school children during 2016. 

One interesting thing about nationalism is that is so un self critical.

It does not examine the assumptions it makes, whether about
+ who belongs to the nation,

+ who can opt out of the nation,
+ whether a nation is about territory or people and
+ whether the nation comes before the individual or vice versa.
Another thing to note is that nationalism is modern, and not an ancient, ideology.

It came about, as Benedict Anderson says, because  the other forces, that  previously sufficed to persuade people to cooperate such as a shared religious belief or a shared allegiance to a ruling dynasty, had lost their force . Nationalism has replaced Communism in Easter Europe since 1989.

Nationalism also uses simplifications of history, and mysticism, to  avoid asking difficult questions of itself.

This is evident in Japan, in its approach to China and to the legacy of its  war in China from 1936 to 1945.

Similar over simplifications and blindness to the other side are also present in the dispute between Israeli and Palestinian nationalisms.

These conflicting interpretations of history make it difficult for people, whose objective interests may actually largely coincide, to cooperate fruitfully with one another.

That is why I believe there should be an open debate about what nationalism really means.

The 150 traditional "nations" of the world ,who met in Paris on our global climate,  are all  of them far too small to cope on their own with the  challenges of global interdependence, global waste, and global environmental degradation. Nationalism does not have an answer to that problem.

While nationalism will always be with us, it needs to accompanied by other, more global, foci for loyalty and common action.

1 comment:

Feargus O'Gorman said...

This is a perspective that is sorely needed. Considering the fact that nationalism is in many ways the cornerstone of modern political association, it still remains an extremely ill defined and as you say, un-self-critical concept.

Nationalism is something that (in the present day) appears almost natural and fundamental at first glance. However, of the many theories and descriptions of nationalism that have been put forward over the years, not one can fully cater for the huge amount of variance in real terms - very few large geographic expanses (such as modern nation states) envelope a perfectly (or even near perfect) set of people sharing a common culture, language etc. Nationalism provides no clear cut rules regarding how dissimilar two peoples need to be to be determined as different nationalities. This partly explains the large number of secessionist movements with no obvious foundation other than this poorly defined concept of nationality e.g. the recent Scottish independence referendum. This is a pretty glaring example as Scotland and England, in every meaningful sense, share a commonality of interests and outlook.

The fact that nationalism is so often viewed as natural and fundamental has led to further problems. The current problems in the Middle East can be, in part, explained by the ill conceived application of national boundaries, on peoples with no concept or history of nationalism, by the post war planners.

Nationalism is inherently exclusionary, and very often this exclusion is targeted at groups and individuals who have (often for many generations) lived in an area as a minority. For example, in pre-WWI Austria-Hungary, ethnic Czechs and Slovaks could serve in high positions in the state. Similarly, ethnic Germans in the Baltic region served in the Russian state. Following WWI, once these territories broke up into nation states, these ethnic minorities were viewed as outsiders and most often excluded from such positions. While I am not advocating a return to pre-WWI empires, this highlights that nationalism, as a foundation of political association, leads to the exclusion of minorities who could otherwise freely associate with the broader polity.

There is the famous phrase that "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried". If the word 'democracy' is substituted for 'nationalism', and 'Government' for 'association' the phrase still holds broadly true. A nation state is still favourable to a theocratic state or one based on the bloodlines of royal families. And nationalism played a major role in the 1800s (for example the 1848 Revolutions) in providing people with a means of association outside of monarchical states. However, as you highlight, the problem remains that nationalism has now taken up a cherished position as an unequivocally positive and natural foundation for a state. Just the same way it is important to to be aware of the problems in democracy to better produce stable and equitable democratic states, it is important to be aware of the problem in nationalism to avoid needless exclusions and conflicts.

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