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Evolving Ideas of Nationalism II

Travelling the world - but only with states

This week the ISN will examine the role of nationalism in an evolving and dynamic international system. We will also consider whether multiculturalism is a necessary and appropriate response to some of the more retrograde and unsettling aspects of nationalism. From the outset, however, it is important to mention that the social science literature on nationalism often emphasizes 1) the lack of a comprehensive definition for the term, or 2) that there is a multiplicity of nationalisms. Indeed, these nationalisms often get defined with catch-all terms such as New Nationalism, Liberal Nationalism, Small Nationalism and so on. This multiplicity, in turn, confirms that the very concept of the nation has developed across the course of history and refers to more than just to a group of people born in the same place.

Again, to chart our understanding of nationalism today, we begin by quickly outlining Ernst Renan’s conception of the nation-state, followed by a look at how some analysts are trying to transform this traditional view of it in order to respond more effectively to the stresses of globalization. (Yes, nationalism provides states with a cohesive identity, but often by playing upon the insecurity of societies to achieve desired outcomes.) Finally, we will quickly look at multiculturalism and see whether it offers an approach to addressing global challenges that is more user-friendly than nationalism.

The Modernism of Nationalism

In a speech delivered in 1882 at the Sorbonne in Paris, Ernst Renan noted that nations are something fairly new in history. Classical antiquity had, for example, republics, confederations, kingdoms and empires. But the nation – understood as a group of people sharing memories of a common legacy, and a desire to live together – is an altogether more modern phenomenon. Renan further argued that while geography, language and religion may have a part to play in its self-definition, ascribing nationality to these characteristics alone would be a fatal flaw. As he observes: “It is no more soil than it is race which makes a nation. The soil furnishes the substratum, the field of struggle and of labor; man furnishes the soul. Man is everything in the formation of this sacred thing which is called a people. Nothing [purely] material suffices for it. A nation is a spiritual principle, the outcome of the profound complications of history; it is a spiritual family, not a group determined by the shape of the earth.”

It is Renan’s “profound complications of history” – effectively aggravated by globalization – that nationalism now finds itself caught up in. Mary Kaldor’s Nationalism and Globalisation examines this complex dynamic and argues that the robust nationalism of the post-Cold War international system must be understood as a response to globalization. In the face of changing global economic, political and social realities, Kaldor argues, nationalism is not an anachronism which will wither and die. Instead, the multifarious components of globalization have provoked resurgent nationalist sentiments that will persist over time.

Given her perspective, it is no surprise that Kaldor is critical of the likes of Eric Hobsbawm, who suggest that nationalism is a “passing phenomenon no longer suited to current structural conditions.” Instead, she argues that processes of globalization are profoundly affecting the development of nationalist discourse. In this respect, the development of information-based economies, the changing nature of war, and the declining importance of territorially-based industrial production have all had a profound impact on existing divisions of labor. Industrial workers who once “formed the backbone of the nationalist ideology,” for example, are being increasingly marginalized, thereby opening up new spaces and possibilities for political protest and populism. They are seizing this opportunity, not to complain about the narrowly defined problems of the past, but to reaffirm nationalism’s continued utility in combating the creeping social insecurity and frustration that knows no borders.

Reconfigured Nationalism

So, Kaldor may indeed be right – nationalism remains a helpful palliative for an increasingly globalized and multicultural world. However, as Hedva Ben-Israel (2011) argues, we no longer should view it as we once did – as an ideology. Instead, we should see it as a neutral principle that merely favors the overlapping of political forms over certain cultural groups. By seeing it in this mechanical way, nationalism can easily align itself with competing ideologies instead of being tied to preferred ones. Fair enough, but Ben-Israel then makes the more controversial claim that the contemporary nation-state has become ideologically neutral enough that it no longer “divides[s] the world into friends and enemies…or [signify] discrimination as part of the natural order.” Indeed, such notions have “long been rejected” by those who continue to put stock in the nation-state as a desired form of political organization.

With Kaldor’s attempt to redefine (and therefore re-legitimize) nationalism as a necessary counter to unregulated globalization in hand, and with Ben-Israel’s attempt to leach out the ideological stink of the nationalist project in hand too, we are left with a third adaptation. Before raising it though, it is important to remember that Ben-Israel makes his neutralist argument even though he unfortunately contradicts it later. Europe’s recent stiffening of immigration and naturalization laws, he subsequently writes, “shows that the part of sovereignty which protects the national culture is
firmly in place.” Well, so much for nation-states having jettisoned their traditional us-versus-them ideology.

Finally, our promised third adaptation is actually an updated version of an old argument – i.e., that nationalism continues to serve as a ‘glue’ that allows democratic societies to work best, both within themselves and with each other, where a “common culture provides conditions for mutual trust and interests.” As in the case of Ben-Israel, however, there is a worm here. Under the onslaught of globalization, Kaldor argues, this political form that once enhanced interconnectedness can now aggravate disconnectedness and the breaking down of states. The trick, if nationalism is to work as a counter-globalization ‘glue’, is to ensure it continues to stress solidarity and mutual history at the local level, and that it continues to offer genuine protection to cultural-political units at these same levels too.

Nationalism and Multiculturalism

Further adding to the complexity of the nationalism-globalization nexus we’ve been glossing over so far is the idea of multiculturalism. Many see it as an attempt to circumvent both the rigidities of nationalism and the mechanistic indifference of globalization. By seemingly providing a middle way, the concept first appeared to promise a way out of the problems we’re now confronting. The problem, unfortunately, has been the dominant definition of multiculturalism we aligned on – i.e., as a condition whereby a common ‘majority’ identity should not automatically override or take precedent over a ‘minority’ identity. Such a definition has been, as we all know, an open invitation to ethnic conflict, as we saw in the former Yugoslavia. Recognition of minority identities weren’t symbolic then, nor are they today. The expectation remains that these minorities will enjoy the same rights and tenets that “gave rise to nationalism and the nation-state in the first place,” and that they will preserve, in the words of Ben-Israel, the same ”collective consciousness of cultural identity and the right to practice it autonomously” as nations.

So, multiculturalism started off as a kinder and gentler version of “nationalism lite,” but what we’ve ended up with are threats of secession, greater demands for human rights and self-determination, an influx of ‘non-natives’ who supposedly create cultural enclaves that damage the very fabric of society, and rising populism, extremism and exclusion as ugly reactions. What to conclude with then? Well, nationalism is clearly a durable, and indeed malleable, concept. Those who continue to have faith in its utility have transcended Renan’s initial framing of the concept in order to use it as a foil to the undesirable aspects of globalization. Unfortunately, and in updated versions or not, nationalism continues to bring its own (and familiar) problems to this fight. To reduce these problems, multiculturalism’s appeal as an alternative way to humanize contemporary governance grew. But it too has brought its own problems to the table, as we hinted at here and consider further over the course of this week.