Why Nationalism Will Win the Twenty-First Century

Why Nationalism Will Win the Twenty-First Century

Most Americans take it for granted that there is an American people or nation with its own particular culture and traditions, and that the human race in the world as a whole is divided among culturally distinct peoples or nations.

While success in national independence movements has often depended on great power sponsorship, most people throughout the ages have preferred to be governed by members of their own tribes rather than foreigners. There are exceptions, to be sure. Local collaborators have sometimes appealed to imperial powers to secure themselves in struggles against rival co-ethnics, and persecuted groups may see a remote empire as less of a threat than nearby bullies. But wars of ethnic independence or failed national uprisings, defending the customs or the very survival of their own ethnocultural nations against outsiders, have been recurrent throughout history, as scholars like Walker Connor, Anthony D. Smith, and Azar Gat have shown. The claim that people everywhere cherish individual rights is dubious. The claim that humans are nepotistic social animals who generally prefer communal autonomy to rule by invading ethnic foreigners is far more plausible.

Any benefits of premodern empires to their populations were incidental to their predatory nature, like the decline of random crime in a neighborhood controlled by the Mafia. While traditional agrarian empires were satisfied with the payment of tribute from conquered provinces, early modern European mercantilist empires systematically sought to choke off the economic progress of their colonies by deliberate strategies of deindustrialization, in order to provide captive markets for the manufacturers in the metropole.

Here are three examples of how the parasitic British empire sought to thwart the industrial development of its colonies in Ireland, North America, and India. The Wool Tax of 1699 protected English textile manufacturers by outlawing the export of woolen goods by English-ruled Ireland and the North American colonies. The Iron Tax of 1750 outlawed colonial iron manufacturing and export from the North American colonies. The truly sinister Salt Tax of 1882 prevented Indians under British rule from collecting or selling salt, an essential part of the Indian diet, to provide a monopoly to British business. Gandhi made the protest against the salt tax a major part of the campaign for Indian independence.

There is no reason for any person today, British or otherwise, to be nostalgic for the British Empire, which was a predatory economic racket from beginning to end. I am not aware of any Indians or Pakistanis who wish for restoration of the British Raj, or any Croats, Serbs, Czechs, or Slovaks who want to be governed today by Habsburg family figureheads of a restored ethnic German-Magyar condominium.

ALL THREE groups of intellectual opponents of the nation-state—the one-world leftists and liberals, the free-market globalists who want the world to be a borderless bazaar, and the nostalgic imperialist Right—routinely deploy the argument ad Hitlerum, claiming that the nation-state invariably tends to promote political repression, war, ethnic cleansing, and genocide. According to Colonel Blimps of the imperial Right, if the Habsburg Empire had continued to exist it would have thwarted that Austrian Pan-Germanist, Adolf Hitler. The free-market globalists frequently repeat the falsehood that tariffs and economic competition led to World War II—as though Hitler invaded Europe to sell Volkswagens, rather than to turn Germany into a superpower that could rival the United States. The American and European Left routinely compare border security personnel to the Gestapo, border fencing to the Berlin Wall, and illegal immigrants—most of them ordinary economic migrants in no danger of their lives—to Jews and others fleeing the Nazis.

Despite the abject failure in the real world of alternatives to the nation-state, the intellectual anti-nationalists of Right, Center, and Left have so thoroughly stigmatized nationalism as an idea that showing support for the major legitimating principle of states in the world of the twenty-first century is widely seen as taboo. Books defending the legitimacy of the nation-state tend to be written by thinkers treated as pariahs by bien-pensant American and European professors, mostly journalists in the conservative subculture, like Richard Lowry and Daniel McCarthy in the United States, or Israeli thinkers like Yael Tamir, Yoram Hazony, and Azar Gat, whose arguments at least implicitly justify the existence of a Jewish nation-state in its historic homeland. Ironically, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many sophisticated American liberals and leftists who would have sneered at flag-waving fellow citizens publicly embraced the flag, national colors, and even the national anthem of Ukraine in a show of solidarity so over the top that it sometimes seemed like sublimated or vicarious nationalism.

Most of the discussion of nationalism and the nation-state in the academy and in the elite media leans on a few clichés. Let us examine them:

Nationalism is outmoded because one hundred percent congruence between ethnocultural nationality and citizenship is rare or nonexistent.

This is just a debating trick, which uses a ridiculously narrow definition of the nation-state to discredit the idea. For a country to be a nation-state, it is not necessary for 100 percent of the population to belong to the majority ethnocultural nation. In most or all nation-states, there is a cultural majority, whose language is the official or de facto language of the state, along with national minorities, which may be “autochthonous” groups that have resided in the territory for centuries or millennia, or, in countries which allow immigration, immigrant diasporas.

Most so-called nationalities are inauthentic creations of modern state propaganda.

This argument has been embraced by Marxists and others on the socialist Left, influenced by Eric Hobsbawm in his 1983 book, The Invention of Tradition, co-authored with Terence Ranger. Hobsbawm followed up with another assault on nation-state, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality. The examples of traditions fabricated or exaggerated by nationalist intellectuals in the twentieth century discussed by Hobsbawm or Ranger are real but trivial. Medieval Scots did not run around in tartan kilts and Vikings did not wear horned helmets, but that does not mean there were no medieval Scots or Vikings.

Hobsbawm, a long-time communist, was an intellectual captive of the Marxist dogma of proletarian internationalism. With singularly bad timing for a historian, he predicted that the nation-state was an anachronism on the verge of withering way, shortly before the break-up of the USSR and Yugoslavia into nation-states, the rise of nationalism and populism in Western democracies, and movements seeking independence from supra-national organizations like Brexit.

In addition to quoting the phrase “invented tradition,” anti-nationalist intellectuals recite a few other touchstones to substitute for argument, the way that Biblical fundamentalists cite verses from Scripture as proof texts. One ritual phrase is “imagined communities,” taken from the title of a 1983 book by the sociologist Benedict Anderson, and taken to mean that national communities are “imaginary” and therefore “fake” or “unreal,” something that Anderson did not mean to suggest.

Another much-cited proof text for Western academic anti-nationalists is Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914. Often, Weber is cited by anti-national thinkers as authority for the statement that most French people did not even speak French until the twentieth century and therefore had no conception of a French nation. This is nonsense. Most inhabitants of France may not have spoken standardized French before the advent of mass schooling, but they spoke dialects of French, except for Corsicans, who spoke Italian; Alsatians, who spoke German; and Bretons, who spoke their Celtic dialect at home. And the implication that premodern speakers of different dialects of the French language had no sense of being more related to each other than to Germans or Italians is false. Petrarch and Machiavelli dreamed of the unification of Italy, and Luther addressed “the Christian nobility of the German nation.”

Yet another favorite quote that is deployed out of its context by anti-nationalist intellectuals is Ernest Renan’s phrase in his essay “What is a Nation?” describing the nation as a “daily plebiscite.” Most who cite this snippet apparently believe that Renan meant to argue that nations, in addition to being “imaginary,” are reinvented each day—so that the French, tomorrow, could vote to cease being French.

This is a misreading of Renan, whose argument was that historic nations, although not defined by race or religion or territory, are quite real and deserve to be perpetuated. Here is the phrase in its context: 

A nation is therefore a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of the sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future. It presupposes a past; it is summarized, however, in the present by a tangible fact, namely, consent, the clearly expressed desire to continue a common life. A nation’s existence is, if you will pardon the metaphor, a daily plebiscite, just as an individual’s existence is a perpetual affirmation of life.

For Renan, a nation which repudiates its tradition and chooses not to continue is the equivalent of an individual who commits suicide. Most of the anti-nationalists who quote Renan’s phrase about the “daily plebiscite” without ever having read Renan would be horrified by his peroration:

Of all cults, the cult of the ancestors is the most legitimate, for the ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past, great men, glory (by which I mean genuine glory), this is the social capital upon which one bases a national idea …The Spartan song—“We are what you were; we will be what you are”—is, in its simplicity, the abridged hymn of every patrie.