Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Nationalism: Evolving Ideas of Nationalism

Source: ISN

The ISN begins its study of nationalism by outlining the historical development of nationalist discourse and the purposes to which it now applies. The investigation further demonstrates that the idea of nationalism has a complex – and sometimes troubled – historical past, which may be attributable to its socially constructed nature.

By Peter Faber for the ISN

What is nationalism? Well, it’s certainly not ‘natural.’ It doesn’t happen automatically and it hasn’t existed forever. It is, much like other political ‘truths,’ a human construct. Unfortunately, nationalists of all stripes attempt to obscure this fact. Long-term longings for home, for example, have long been invoked by such characters as proof positive of nationalism’s ever-present and subterranean character. Nationalism, in other words, is always latent in your heart if not always consciously present in your mind. Instead of having to invent it, you just have to bring it to light. Lying, as it does, just below the surface, all you have to do is spark it into active consciousness. This argument is, of course, nothing more than a magic trick. The dualism at its core helps you, the ardent nationalist, to avoid admitting that nationalism is indeed a human invention – i.e., it is a socio-political response to a particular context. If that is the case, then where does nationalism come from?

One compelling argument is that nationalist political theories had their birth deep within the Enlightenment. Indeed, according to JS McClelland, they represented a “doctrinal readjustment from within.” The adjustment was necessary, at least in some minds, because of the Enlightenment’s universalist principles, which gave short shrift to local circumstances. The general impulse, in other words, was to dismiss an inconvenient truth – the truth, as McClelland puts it, that when it came to political models or arrangements, “human nature could write very different stories in different geographical and moral landscapes.” How to rebut the deductive and universal, then, with a countervailing inductive and local approach?

Johann Gottfried von Herder (see his Yet Another Philosophy of History, among other works) soon provided an answer. To Herder, the universal values and supposed truths of the Enlightenment were not universal at all – they were nothing more than symptoms of French cultural imperialism. The Enlightenment project, as it existed at the time, was merely an over-systematized form of hegemony being perpetrated against the plurality and ‘purity’ of nature. Its chief tool was the French language – a formalized state language used and spread by a narrow caste of thinkers and by the officials who backed them. To Herder, in contrast, the German language (and the folk-memory it represented and preserved) had yet to be hijacked by the cerebral at the expense of the natural. It remained both uncorrupted and authentic. Indeed, German wasn’t an ideologically-based language at all, or so Herder opined; instead, it was a kind of glue that permitted and encouraged the creation of deep cultural bonds between all Germans. It permitted, in short, the creation of a self-conscious national spirit – a spirit which was a ‘natural’ source of mutual kinship, and therefore a foundation stone of what became cultural nationalism.

So, in Herder’s hands, modern nationalism began as a localist’s anti-hegemonic correction (not rejection) of the universalizing impulses of the Enlightenment. (That its own backers had more doubts about these impulses than is popularly acknowledged today is a story for another time.) Herder’s rebuttal stressed the role of linguistically-based cultural nationalism as an antidote to the importing of over-elaborated, over-systematized and ‘inorganic’ French ideas. This form of nationalism was pluralistic and acknowledged that different communities naturally have their own ‘animating spirits.’ Fair enough, but we know that the evolution of modern nationalism did not stop there. We have to, after all, consider the French Revolution, the contributions of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, and the rise of Social Darwinism in the later 19th century.

What 1789 contributed to nationalism is the idea of exclusion. Nationalism may indeed be pluralistic and culturally based, but in the eyes of the French revolutionaries the true essence of a nation was not its territory or necessarily its history, but its people and their will. The operative assumption here was that everyone who was part of a state was by definition aligned on the same side. Those who rejected this particular definition, because they let their religious or class loyalties trump their now state-provided identities, were relegated to being internal or external enemies.

Johann Gottlieb Fichte subsequently built upon the early ideas of culturally-based and exclusionary nationalism by touting the importance of national self-determination – i.e., the collective struggle to be free – in his Addresses to the German Nation (1807). To instruct the Volk properly in this necessary principle, Fichte argued that the German state should be responsible for their education, which would privilege love of the Fatherland above all else.

Finally this emphasis on self-actualizing struggle took a nasty turn later in the 19th century. Nationalism metastasized into a vision of perpetual inter-national struggle laced with the crackpot notions of Social Darwinism. Fichte’s emphasis on self-determination, in other words, degenerated into xenophobia-laced struggles for national superiority. This survival-of-the-fittest view of nationalism then made the question of what political form a nation should take secondary to that of how a people could best survive in a tooth-and-claw world. Nationalism, in short, became a weapon in the arsenals of militarists and reactionaries alike. The result of this last great turn, as we know, was to substitute the idea of self-sacrifice for the idea of self-determination, and to apply it towards a dubious and open-ended goal – the full realization of a nation’s spirit through war and hegemony. The mass slaughter subsequently experienced in multiple wars led us to where we are today – searching for (and creating) communities that share common assumptions, values and feelings, and thereby returning to notions of potential multilateral peace.

To repeat then, what is nationalism? Well, given the cumulative, layer-cake influences of Herder, revolutionary France, Fichte and the militarized, Social Darwinism of later years, nationalism can be (and is) any of the following things in today’s world:

  • A reaction against cultural-ideological imperialism or hegemony;
  • A tool used to create collective unity (at the expense, if need be, of other intra-group members who insist on alternate identities);
  • A way to expropriate and manipulate the past (again, to invent mutual identity);
  • A collection of myths, obsessions and narratives that can only be ameliorated, or so it seems, by conquering territory;
  • A focal point with which to gather back or reintegrate once-lost diasporas;
  • A self-justifying narrative for readjusting your place in the international system;
  • A collection of political values and ideals which you wish to export (one reason French-American relations have been historically testy is that they are both messianic nations that jostle each other to spread their ideological message abroad);
  • A justification to revenge yourself against past slights;
  • A rallying point, whereby you can reinvigorate the zeal and commitment of a disaffected population;
  • And finally, a mechanism by which you ensure self-determination and ‘positive’ liberty (as described by Emmanuel Kant and Isaiah Berlin).

In closing, one might ask how many of these forms of nationalism apply in what are arguably some of the most complicated cases extant today – the Arab-Israeli conflict, then tensions between Sudan and South Sudan, the attempts at Kurdish or Northern Caucasus autonomy, and so on. Troubled areas such as these illustrate that the process of nation-building continues apace in a supposedly post-modern world.