What’s With Nationalism?

Is nationalism “natural,” or is it artificial, silly, and indefensible?

“Nicaragua has been conquered like Athens. Nicaragua has been annexed like Jerusalem,” cried the old man, with amazing fire. “The Yankee and the German and the brute powers of modernity have trampled it with the hoofs of oxen. But Nicaragua is not dead. Nicaragua is an idea.”

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

When G.K. Chesteron wrote his novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill in 1904, it was still just about possible to believe that nationalism was romantic. Nationalism was, in those pre-World War days, primarily characterized as the fight of democratic revolutionaries against tyranny, of subjugate nations against imperialism: the United States, France, Ireland, Greece. It was the triumph of localism and authenticity against the pitiless forces of industry and the stale, performative rituals of cultural elites. The novel’s opening imagines a 20th-century future when the global order has become dull and homogenized. Figurehead-leaders are selected by sortition, and civil life is administered by faceless bureaucrats. This world isn’t quite a dystopia, but it is a place of profound spiritual torpor. After decades of this predictable political routine, a jokester named Auberon is chosen by lottery to be the ceremonial monarch of England. Rather than following the expected procedures, Auberon instead proceeds to amuse himself by forcing the various boroughs of London to adopt faux-medieval heraldry, and adhere to parodically elaborate courtly forms. But this pageant quickly takes on a life of its own: The next generation of Londoners sincerely believes in the invented histories of their neighborhoods, and when a corporation attempts to demolish a block of shops in Notting Hill, the locals take up arms and go to war. This bloodshed is presented by Chesterton not as a tragedy, but as a joyous reawakening. The inhabitants of London—especially those whose lives were formerly bound up in the nation’s business ventures and impersonal administrative structures—rediscover their humanity by acknowledging their natural love for the place they were born, and their willingness to die for its preservation.

The Napoleon of Notting Hall is, in its way, hard to place on the modern political spectrum. On the one hand, it feels like a novel for the era of Standing Rock: It tells the story of a small neighborhood that bands together against a cabal of businessmen to defend a small piece of the world they happen to hold in reverence. In the words of the leader of the rebellion: “That which is large enough for the rich to covet is large enough for the poor to defend.” It’s a book about the triumph of oddballs, hobbyists, and idealists over the well-monied forces of avarice and indifference. It celebrates the idea that there is poetry in ordinary life, and that ordinary people have a deep, instinctive hunger for poetry. On the other hand, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—which is often read as an allegory of nationalism—also feels like a novel for the era of Breitbart, which is constantly inveighing against the evils of multiculturalism, globalization, and cosmopolitanism, and, in the same breath, suggesting that loyalty to one’s country of birth is paramount, rendering all other moral obligations moot. War is a central feature of The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and is treated as an ordinary and even healthy human activity, without any significant long-term repercussions. Notably, all the characters in the book are men. We see them kill each other in an honorable spirit of good fun, but what their grieving wives and children think of the whole stupid business, we never discover. There are no wartime atrocities: The conflict has no civilians per se, and so we don’t see any terrified civilians killed. Keeping things vague, of course, is the only way you can possibly make a war narrative jolly, as if it were a sports match or a paintball fight. This kind of merry, Renaissance Faire LARPing might indeed be preferable to a colorless bureaucratic existence; but who wouldn’t choose bureaucracy, however frustrating and inadequate, over the killing fields of Flanders?

The dichotomy set up by The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and modern proponents of nationalism, suggests that there’s a binary choice between a dreary, monotonous global monoculture and the geographically-determined separation of human populations into personified groups. G.K. Chesterton envisions loyalty to place as something intensely local. The smaller the country, the purer the patriotism, so that loyalty to your street and your neighborhood is the purest loyalty of all. We can take issue with this assertion, of course: In the same way that plenty of people aren’t blessed with loving families, many people aren’t lucky enough to be born into a community that welcomes and nurtures them. An insistence on the primacy of the natal hearth, for such people, is a cruel form of emotional bondage. But even if we accept that some people, at least, are profoundly attached to the place they live, the extrapolation of the intimate emotions a person has about the scene of their childhood, or the place they’ve made their home, onto a political unit as large as a nation is a peculiar intellectual leap.

There’s a notion that love for one’s country is an old human emotion, but if we understand “country” as “nation,” it can’t possibly be an old human emotion, because nations are a very new thing in human history. Scholars have struggled to even come up with a coherent description of what a “nation” actually is. Is it defined by ethnicity and language? Most nations aren’t ethnically, culturally, or linguistically unitary (or were only made so by conscious social engineering), and that includes the small nation-states of Europe, as well as big imperial states like the U.S., Canada, and Russia. France, for example, often thought by outsiders as a prime example of a culturally cohesive nation with deep historical roots, began its political existence a multiethnic, multilinguistic territory. The post-revolutionary state engaged in systematic suppression of minority languages like Occitan, Catalan, Basque, and Breton in order to force the populace to view themselves as members of a unified republic. Separatist movements in Catalonia and the Basque country of Spain, and the northern territories of Italy (whose flaghead separatist party, the Northern League, has now emerged as a major anti-EU force in Italian politics) show the fragile identity of many of these European nations, which U.S. Americans tend to mistakenly perceive as ancient, undiluted cultural archetypes.

Another definition of nationhood tends to disregard the supposed historic or hereditary legacies of nation-states, and instead focus on nations as groups of people defined by their common assent to a set of laws or principles. (This is what is often derisively referred to by modern-day fascists as the “proposition nation.”) This definition, however, is somewhat difficult to pin down. No citizen of a state is actually ever given a meaningful opportunity to assent or dissent from the social contract of the geographic area into which they are born. Many people spend their whole lives in a state of passionate opposition to the laws of the state that is theoretically their legal protector. Many other people who would willingly assent to the laws of a particular country are arbitrarily denied the opportunity to become citizens, because they happen to have been born in the wrong geographic location.

In the end, most theorists have simply had to throw up their hands and admit that a nation (as coined by Benedict Anderson) is simply an “imagined community.” A nation exists if people believe that they are members of a nation. In other words, a nation is a kind of collective delusion, which will vanish into thin air the minute enough people decide that they’re sick of playing pretend.

Much of what we call “nationalism” involves attempting to project the emotions that many people feel about their own families and immediate environs onto much larger groups of people and larger swathes of territory. In one sense, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. A nation, in its best iteration, is a way for a heterogeneous group of people to envision themselves as members of a community, and to assume obligations toward one another as community members. It’s a way of ensuring that where more local structures like families and neighborhoods fall short—as they are inevitably bound to do, from time to time—there is always some larger group of individuals and some larger resource pool that can be safely relied upon. If we think of a nation in this way, as a kind of practical instrument of human solidarity and collective resource-sharing, then surely the bigger the nation, the better? If we can imagine ourselves to be in community with millions of U.S. Americans we’ll never actually meet, why can’t we imagine ourselves to be in a community with billions of other humans around the globe? Ideally, we would all be trying to move toward a massive political unit like Star Trek’s Federation of Planets, where autonomous individuals and smaller self-determined communities exist within a large umbrella alliance. A nation of this type would have no particular “identity” beyond its administrative structures and its shared moral commitment to universal, equitable resource-sharing.

The very essence of what we now understand as “nationalism,” however, is defined entirely by identity, by the notion that there is a core group of people who comprise the nation, that these people owe duties to each other and not to anyone else, and that outsiders must be kept at bay, through tight policing of borders, resource-hoarding, and preemptive military strikes. Because it is huge and impersonal, and not truly local in any meaningful sense, the modern nation is bereft even of the hazy charms of G.K. Chesterton’s medieval fantasy. It’s the job of propagandists to make people believe that the warm emotion they may feel about their own living-room or backyard is something they actually feel about the entire national territory—but not the entire territory of the planet at large. This psychological sleight-of-hand might be harmless enough, if the real-life essence of national self-preservation didn’t so often entail the enslavement or killing of people who don’t happen to enjoy any powerful nation’s protection.

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion”

Thomas Paine

If nations are artificial, what of it? Even if conceptually they make little sense upon examination, perhaps these constructs are useful ways of ordering human society. In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony argues that there is a rational case for dividing humanity into nations, that in proper doses nationalism is not just benign, but a morally superior way of organizing ourselves.

Hazony’s argument is that there are “two visions of world order”: liberalism and nationalism. Liberals believe in a borderless world, where everyone shares common values and conceives of themselves as part of the human community. Nationalists believe that the world should be organized into nation-states, in which governments map onto that murky entity, the nation. Hazony believes that while liberalism is presented as morally superior, it is nothing of the kind. This, he says, is because universal values steamroll human differences. The advocates of universal values and a borderless world believe that a global government should impose those values regardless of the feelings of the subjects, and should force humans out of their natural groups. Hazony argues that liberalism, for all its rhetoric about human rights and world cooperation, is actually a form of imperialism.

The Virtue of Nationalism does not make its case particularly intelligently or fairly. Hazony posits a binary, arguing that the choice is between “an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding” and “a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.” Nationalists believe in self-determination, whereas for the liberal imperialists “the desire and need for such collective self-determination tends to be regarded as primitive and dispensable.” The liberals want to crush freedom and impose their will: “Under a universal political order… in which a single standard of right is held to be in force everywhere, tolerance for diverse political and religious standpoints must necessarily decline.” The nationalists, on the other hand, simply want to be left alone. They believe that “good fences make good neighbors” and are reluctant to engage in wars of conquest. (Hazony even concludes that Hitler had more in common with liberal imperialism than nationalism, because Hitler thought everyone should be united under one world government—his own.) 

Hazony is from Israel, and he concludes that international criticism of Israel is the product of liberals’ hatred of the nation-state. He says that “Israel is pilloried in international bodies, in the media, and on university campuses around the world for an alleged violation of human rights, whether real or imagined.” But he does not consider it possible that the criticism arises from sincere concern about actual human rights abuses. Instead, it comes from “the hatred that a universal ideal bears against those nations or tribes that refuse to accept its claim of universality.” Liberals resent Israel simply for existing, for daring to be a nation-state when nation-states are out of fashion. It is a “hatred for the particularists,” and no matter how humane and reasonable Israel is, the “Jews will remain an object of special outrage.” Hazony believes the international community disdains the United States for the same reason. Other countries  “Deplore America for its willingness to solve pressing security problems on its own,” and have “Consistently found it disturbing that the United States sees itself as having a right to act unilaterally… Their problem is, in other words, that the United States acts as an independent nation.”

Illustrations by Christopher Matthews

It should be obvious why Hazony’s defense of nationalism is unconvincing. First, if you’re going to conclude that critics of the United States and Israel must simply resent their pride in their identity, you first have to show that the substance of the critics’ claims is false and must be a pretense. Hazony does not dwell on the actual charges against the two countries, namely that the United States believes its “right to act unilaterally” allows it to invade and depose any foreign leader whose existence it is uncomfortable with (Iran, Guatemala, Chile, Congo, Iraq, etc.), and has wrought havoc in dozens of countries around the world. Israel, for its part, has placed a million Gazans under siege and shoots any who try to escape. Since the world actually has many proud nation-states, it might be worth considering whether it really may be the actions of Israel and the U.S., rather than their hometown pride, that earns them so much scorn (and before you say “but why do the abuses of Islamic states go uncriticized by the left?” you should hear what we have to say about Saudi Arabia and the UAE!)

More importantly, though, The Virtue of Nationalism’s binary is completely unnecessary. Is the choice really between closed-off nation-states and an all-powerful global government that despises self-determination? Many of the strongest critics of nationalism have also been critics of state power generally. The anarchist Rudolf Rocker’s Nationalism and Culture, written in Berlin under the Third Reich, was both a plea for self-determination and a stinging attack on the concept of the nation. Rocker declared that “Man’s liberation from the organized force of the state and the narrow bondage of the nation is the beginning of a new humanity, which feels its wings grow in freedom and finds its strength in the community.” No nations, no states, no nation-states.

Rocker attempted to show that throughout history, governments and nations had stifled human beings and kept them from fully realizing their highest aspirations. “Culture” is often seen as an expression of national identity; in fact, Rocker says, it is not. There is a “community of culture,” but it has nothing to do with nations. If you look at the history of art, he says, you’ll find that as art evolved, it had much more to do with the development of humanity as a whole than the particular characteristics of individual nations, and “changes in the artistic formative impulse were confined to one country or nation just as little as were the social changes from which they arose.” Rocker says that art reaches greatness not when it embodies national character, but when it speaks to universal human truths. He speaks admiringly of Leonardo da Vinci, whose work may have been influenced by a time and a place but is respected for its human qualities rather than its Italian qualities. We will find, Rocker suggests, that we are at our creative best when we transcend our provincial identities and produce work that speaks to all people.

That may offer the beginning of a hint of an answer to the difficult question: If we do oppose nationalism, how do we replace the “fulfillment” that nationalism brings people? Every country on earth has a flag. If you got rid of the flags, people would devise new ones. Collective identity appears to be a natural phenomenon, and while we might envision a world with “international” cooperation, it’s hard to envisage one with no nations at all, in part because anthems, customs, etc. seem to be such powerful “meaning-generators.”

But perhaps defenders of nationalism are too quick to conclude that “having pride in a collective identity” and “the contemporary nation-state” are necessarily the same thing. After all, people have pride in lots of different larger entities. Americans go fucking bananas over football, and your “team” can become a major part of your identity. The English are the same with soccer, though the associated history of rioting might seem to confirm the theory that exclusive collective identities inherently tend toward antagonism. There are plenty of relatively harmless forms of pride: New Yorkers are certainly annoying in how much they love New York, but they generally don’t kill anyone over it. Perhaps municipal pride should displace national pride, since it’s less likely to lead to war. You’re not French or American, you’re Parisian or Milwaukeean. Not only would this decrease the risk of bloody absurdities like World War One, but by increasing the diversity of possible identities it would make the world ever more rich and interesting.

Or perhaps we should stick with nations, but we can all get along. Look, for example, at the Olympics. Forget, for a moment, the hideous injustices that occur every time a country hosts the games, squandering the treasury on a disposable stadium and displacing a bunch of poor people. Let’s just look at the spirit of the thing: friendly rivalry, competition among groups that are equal in status but different in identity. Or look at the World Cup: It brings everyone together, even as it is built on national difference. Perhaps the problem is states rather than nations: It would be fine to have these weird little imagined communities if they never used military force against minorities or one another. Perhaps nations “inherently” breed suspicion and hostility, leading to irreconcilable conflict and fear of “the other.” But that might not be the case! In a world of peace, without any weapons of war, it might be fun to all split into nations, play dress-up, invent languages, and sing songs.

The universalist faces another far more serious challenge. If we reject the idea of self-determining nation-states, how do we approach national liberation movements? What do we think about Palestinian demands for a nation-state? For that matter, what do we think about the concept of Zionism? If an oppressed people identifies as a nation, and wishes to self-govern, who are we to say “nations make no sense as a basis for organizing governments”?

This is tricky. In practice, one might favor the “two-state solution” as a means of governing two nations that share one mass of land, while in principle one still dreams of a “no-state solution.” But one can be a pragmatic utopian, and treat certain kinds of nationalism as justified in response to particular conditions, even while ultimately hoping for and working toward a “post-national” future. In the case of Israel-Palestine, the two peoples should get to “collectively self-determine,” but we can still hope that eventually, there won’t be two “peoples” at all, just people, some of whom share certain traditions and affinities.

That said, to treat “self-determination” as an inherent good, independent of the particular reasons a certain group of people wishes to “self-determine,” seems naive. The Catalan region of Spain, for example, has its own language, history, and unique cultural traditions, which have been sidelined by the centralizing project of Spanish nation-building. This, we might think, is a good reason for Catalans to want to break off into a self-governing country: When a culture finds itself in danger of being subsumed by totalizing political forces, we might think that it is entitled to take steps to preserve itself. But Catalonia also happens to be the highest-income region in modern Spain, and a not-infrequent talking point of Catalan separatists focuses on “unfairness” of the fact that Catalonia gives more to Madrid than it gets back. This, however, is exactly how wealth redistribution ought to work in a functional state. We can imagine that if a high-income region of the U.S., like the Bay Area or New York, suddenly became intensely interested in preserving its “heritage,” we would roll our eyes and assume that this regionalism was just a cover for tax-dodging. And of course, within a given population, there will always be mixed motives for any political step that has significant popular support.

Ultimately, as the left thinks about what nations ought and ought not be, it seems most sensible to consider them primarily as practical administrative devices for resource allocation. This is not a glamorous definition, of course: It is not the sort of thing it would be exciting to go to war for. But when we attempt to map political structures onto cultural identities, we get into very fishy territory. When a large nation attempts to create a distinctive “identity” for itself, this tends to mean the sublimation of many constituent cultures and identities. But, by the same token, there is a tyranny inherent in small, homogeneous, self-governing communities, where the only choice for individuals is to conform or get out. The great problem of nations is always what to do with the people who don’t belong. What’s to be done with people who have been rejected by their families, starved out of their cities, hounded to every corner of the nation where they were born? Where will they go? The fact is, they must go to other nations and other cities, and that will mean that the character of these places changes as they absorb new inhabitants. Similarly, new generations often fail to share the tastes and affinities of their forebears. Nationalist projects are often about trying to prevent these natural human developments, and trying to keep alive—or reconstruct—some vision of the past that a critical mass of living humans are no longer very attached to.

The sad reality is that, with the progression of time, many worthy feats of human ingenuity and many unique ways of life are lost. We often regret, after the fact, that we failed to appreciate and preserve the things we once had. And many people, who are scared to die, and who see the world they once knew changing before their eyes, are primarily animated by the desire to preserve the things that matter to them. This is understandable. But as humans, we must keep faith with the idea that each generation will have the ingenuity to produce things that seem good and beautiful to them, and that humans will choose to affiliate with other humans in ways that give their lives value and meaning. The mannerisms of newly-formed communities will, perhaps, look very different from what we are used to, and it may confuse us to see the way things change in our lifetime. But it’s worth remembering that most of the traditions and ways of life that seem pure and solid to us now are in fact the syncretic hybrids of many cultures, some of which have been entirely lost to time.

The separation of moral and aesthetic considerations seems key here. We need political structures for moral reasons, because otherwise, the resources of the world have no hope of being fairly distributed, and the environment we all depend upon would be destroyed. (Of course, we have yet to hit upon governmental structures that adequately ensure either of these things, but it’s a worthwhile goal to keep working towards.) But it’s not the business of political structures to tell individuals whom to associate with, and what to take pleasure in, and to the extent that a nation instead conceives its goal as keeping cultural forms static or homogeneous, it is not fulfilling any very useful purpose. The idea that people need a government to tell them what they ought to value is inherently patronizing. That said, a government can play a useful role in ensuring that no small, well-resourced minority (such as real estate developers, and other rich assholes) is able to impose its aesthetic preferences on others, and that no vulnerable minority is forced to give up its culture against its will. Our ideal future envisions communities of choice, not communities of birthright, where every human being has the goods they need for a decent and fulfilling life.

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