Nationalisms: Constructive and Destructive
1st Prize, Graduate Student/Teacher Category, Essay Contest 2016
August 13, 2016
Carter Vance is an MA Candidate at the Institute of Political Economy at Carleton University in Canada. His writing has appeared in a variety of online publications including Truth Out and Jacobin. When not thinking about politics and economics, he is usually either writing poetry, going to the gym or listening to post-punk and 90s emo albums (if not all three at once).
ESSAY TOPIC: Is nationalism an asset or hindrance in today's globalized world?
Upon the conclusion of the Cold War, many professionals and theorists in the realms of international affairs and political science became dedicated to the notion that history, in the Hegelian, dialectic sense, had "ended." The ideological struggle between liberal capitalism and Marxism having been resolved in favour of the former, the tasks left for thinkers and policymakers would be mainly managerial, as expansion of liberal democratic principles of governance to all corners of the world appeared an inevitable trend. Indeed, many of the same individuals who posited the "end of history" thesis suggested that one of the main problems of human affairs in the 21st century would be a sense of existential boredom at having answered all questions worthy of conflict. Certainly, in 2016, we are far from being bored, but have traded this problem for ones far more impactful. As many of the prominent then-advocates of the "end of history" line, chief among them Francis Fukuyama, have since recognized, history has taken turns in the past 25 years that confound convenient, totalizing explanations. If there is a story to be written about the world after the Cold War, it is one in which the particular, the local, the specific began to reassert itself after having been, perhaps falsely, subsumed by the prominent global narrative. It is instructive to consider that amongst the first major post-Cold War conflicts attracting global attention were the various wars in the former Yugoslavia throughout the early to mid-90s. Based as they were on a deadly combination of state authority breakdown and the resurgence of centuries-long ethnic hatreds, they spoke to the reality that not all had signed on for the globalized, free-flowing, borderless world that was said to be imminent. Just as some walls had come tumbling down, many were all-too-eager to rebuild even older ones.
To say that the Yugoslav Wars gave a glimpse of the future of world politics is, in a sense, hyperbolic. The recent resurgence of nationalism as an operative political phenomenon across the globe comes in many varieties and even those which are most noxious or threatening rarely descend into the mass bloodshed of Sarajevo or Srebrenica. However, where this comparison is useful is in that it speaks to the continued relevance of national feeling within politics, the ever-present dynamics of in and outgroups and how quickly these conflicts can escalate to the level of violence. Though a particular nationalism, by nature, is a deeply specific phenomenon, particular to the culture and historical context in which it arises in terms of its goals, methods and self-image, all nationalisms share a combination of constructive and destructive elements. The constructive element involves the creation of the notional "nation" itself out of the people who make it up, along with a set of values and principles which will define that nation’s character. In itself, this is not a bad thing and it may even be said to make politics within nations a more peaceful, stable affair by erecting a set of boundaries of for political disagreement. However, the destructive element of nationalism has been by far the more prominent one in recent years. It is this sort of nationalism which has led to the rise of various far-right parties in Europe, the attacks on refugees and asylum seekers from the war in Syria and the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote. There are more underlying causes to all of these things than just simple reassertions of national character and interest, but, it would be foolish to deny that anxieties about demographic and political change are not at the very least channeled through a language which can reliably be called nationalist. Given that nationalism of various sorts has been a factor in political life since man first came into living in communal units, however, it is doubtful that it will simply be abandoned. The better question to ask is what sort of nationalism will predominate throughout the rest of this young century, and what could be done to better emphaise its constructive elements.
To those accustomed to a mode of thinking which relies on an underlying humanism tend to assert that nationalism is an inherently reactionary force in the world, something to be overcome rather than embraced. Nationalism, to this view, inherently divides people against each other and impedes the development of a global culture of peace by highlighting differences between peoples so as to heighten tensions between them. Though not without supporting evidence, this view is an overly simplistic one, and one which often runs counter to the historical record. Most obviously, currents of nationalism were often the driving forces behind struggles for liberation from colonial powers across the Global South. In a similar vein, it is doubtful that movements in the late-1980s leading to the end of Soviet domination in Eastern Europe would have been as successful as they were without the great swell of national feeling they carried with them. The dawn of the comprehensive welfare state can also be seen as outgrowth of a sort of nationalism, a sense that "we're all in this together" and ought to be taking care of our fellow citizens through a contributory principle of social provision. Going even further back, the origins in nationalism as it is currently best defined lie in the European revolutions of 1848 which, whilst far from ideal to modern understandings of democracy, nevertheless did advance a set of principles which turned politics towards popular participation and away from monarchical and other forms of authoritarian rule. In the most basic sense, nationalism can be defined as a desire for self-rule by the people, free of the influence of outside powers, and it is hard to deny the legitimacy of these rights for any group of people seeking them. Though nationalism surely has been used to discriminatory, xenophobic and even eliminationist ends, there is nothing inherent in its construction which demands this. Indeed, it could even be said that states more secure in their own national identity and having a sense of control over their own destiny would be better at dealing with the outside world, viewing other similarly secure nations more as partners and less as threats to their integrity. A more nationalistic world need not be one with more violence and hatred, so long as there are ways for nations to peacefully resolve disputes with one another and that the nationalism which gains prominence is a flexible, inclusive one. The reason that an attachment to national feeling has come to have such a bad name in political circles is that it is often harder to see these more benevolent forms as being "nationalism" per se. There are, however, some political actors which are taking on the challenge of what an inclusive, modern nationalism will look like.
Most prominent among these has been the Scottish National Party, which bucks recent trends in European nationalist politics by adopting an open, civic vision of "Scottish" identity and welcoming both immigration and engagement with global institutions. It has done all this whilst also setting out a concrete vision of an independent nation and having immense electoral success in its home country. Nationalism of this sort does not function as a block to success in an increasingly interconnected world, but rather strengthens the ability to benefit within it, giving the people involved a firm vision of their own identity whilst not attacking that of others.
What those who simply wish that nationalism would go the way of other now-discredited political ideologies miss is that it is, quite simply, less a movement than a feeling. A feeling which can be harnessed to both positive and negative ends, no doubt, but one which has proven intensely malleable to the political winds of the time (think of how both communist and anti-communist movements in the 20th century used nationalist appeals). To blame nationalism itself for the problems of our world is to miss the forest for the trees, and to project particular failings onto an over-generalization. If the reemergence of the particular as a unit of political analysis can teach us anything, it is that we should not be too eager to ascribe grand narratives to history, lest we end up like Fukuyama and doubling back on our most famous theories. Nationalism may be a help in particular cases, a hindrance in others, but it is in the particulars of the various nationalisms that we find the reasons for this. The goal of peace in the 21st century, then, is likely to be advanced far less by grand projects aimed at nationalism's demise and more at the hard, practical work of revising that feeling to maximize its constructive potentials.