Don't Fear the New Nationalism

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivers a speech during a session of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum (SPIEF), Russia, June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Valery Sharifulin/TASS/Host Photo Agency/Pool

The utopian belief in a globalized world without borders is dying in the West.

July-August 2017

MARRIAGE BETWEEN the Economist and the New Left Review may seem like one of Hieronymus Bosch’s stranger copulations. Liberal capitalists and Marxists have been drawn passionately together over the past few decades in one area: their common utopian belief in the development of a globalized world without nationalism and national borders, a dream now dying in the West. Elsewhere, it never really took root beyond sections of the Western-influenced (and often Western-subsidized) intelligentsia.

Nationalism has frequently been described as a form of religion, and as the social scientist Liah Greenfeld writes,

Like the great religions of the past, nationalism today forms the foundation of our social consciousness, the cognitive framework of our perception of reality. Seen against the record of the great religions’ historical longevity and continuous vitality over centuries of political, economic and technological change, the recognition of this functional equivalence may give us a more accurate idea of nationalism’s projected life span and pace of development.

The strongest states in Asia today are those with strong nationalisms, which are central to the legitimacy not only of the present regimes but of the states themselves. The development of strong senses of national identity is not only a regime strategy; it also reflects a much broader awareness in society—bred from historical experience—of the dreadful consequences of national disintegration. The consequences of not possessing strong unitary state nationalisms are all too apparent in the Middle East today, where a row of states has been torn to pieces by the rival allegiances of sectarianism, ethnicity and supranational religious ideology. (The same is true of Afghanistan, where the utter fatuity of the idea of Western “nation building” has been starkly revealed.) The disastrous results of a lack of common national identity are also apparent across much of Africa. Therefore, it seems that the only thing worse than having a nationalism that is too strong is having one that is too weak.

One of the reasons why parts of Western society fell so comprehensively for ideas of multiculturalism and the weakening of national identities and borders was an intense complacency about the stability, unity and strength of Western states. The European Union itself only worked—for a while—because the states that pooled some of their powers had real powers to pool and felt confident enough to lend some of them to the EU. Elsewhere in the world, people remember very well that they have no grounds for such complacency. These grounds for complacency are now also disappearing in the United States and the West, as political, cultural, ethnic and religious cleavages deepen and—in the absence of strong new ideologies dedicated to reunifying nations—risk becoming irreconcilable.


CENTRAL TO the liberal-capitalist and socialist faith in the inevitable and desirable disappearance of nationalism has been the belief that it is an artificial modern construct, developed by elites and then spread to populations. And what is constructed, the argument goes, can be deconstructed—a thought that linked the analysts of nationalism to Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and powerful tendencies across wide swathes of academia. The constructivist school of studying nationalism was first developed by Ernest Gellner (for the liberals) and Eric Hobsbawm (for the Marxists). They were joined by legions of followers soon after.

From the start, the constructivist approach had its critics. They acknowledged the new elements of national consciousness introduced by modern mass politics and mass society, but also insisted on the antiquity and strength of collective identities and allegiances (whether or not called “national”). The strongest modern nationalisms, they argued, were precisely those that were able to draw on older roots. The constructivist camp itself produced new and more sophisticated variants, notably that of Benedict Anderson, who traced the origins of nationalism to the appearance of print rather than to the industrial revolution as such, and portrayed it as a process of collective imagination—and like imagination, a partly subconscious process—rather than of artificial and calculated creation. This gave rise to specific studies examining how various nationalisms were generated from below, in response to new circumstances, rather than being simply cultivated from above.

In the meantime, however, a shallow and vulgarized version of the constructivist theory had achieved a form of hegemony in most of academia, the media and think tanks. The notion of nationalism, nationalist sentiments and allegiances as an artificial creation of cynical and self-serving elites became a standard unthinking, automatic trope, even on the part of people who did not consciously identify with the socialist or liberal traditions. Thus, at a conference at Lewis and Clark College on ethnic conflict in the late 1990s, I heard that “Greeks and Turks lived together in peace on Cyprus until politicians divided them in the 1950s”; “Bismarck was an ethnic entrepreneur who invented German nationalism in the 1860s”; and “stories of Croat atrocities against Serbs in the Second World War were an invention of the Miloševic regime.”