The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Synopsis of Liah’s Greenfeld’s talk on April 26, 2018, at The Global Order in a New Age of Nationalism conference, Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania

The Nature of Nationalism and What’s New in it Today

Liah Greenfeld

Nationalism is the cultural framework of the modern world. The modern age is the Age of Nationalism. Nationalism was born in the 16th century in England, traveled to the other parts of the British Islands and to the British colonies in America (making the American nation the second historical nation) and then spread, in waves indeed, across the globe: in the 18th century penetrating the intellectual elite in Russia and the urban population in France, in the early 19th century the German intelligentsia and bureaucracy and by mid-century those in the rest of Continental Europe; by the 1860s establishing itself in Japan, by the very end of the 19th century, spreading to the narrow intellectual groups in the Middle East, while simultaneously reaching these narrow groups in China through Japan and in India through Britain; in the 20th century carried to the masses throughout the colossal Russian Empire by those who renamed it the Soviet Union and, very much under Soviet sponsorship, to the elites in Africa. The last significant wave in the spread of nationalism has been its penetration, in the last several decades, of the masses in China and India, with China’s spectacular “coming out” as a nation in 2008, specifically, sending shock waves throughout the West. This is the only development which justifies speaking of the new wave of nationalism today.

Wherever it was once established, nationalism never abated. As we live in it and perceive reality through it, it only occasionally becomes problematized for us, just as we only occasionally problematize life and death, and very rarely attracts our attention and demands explanation. Usually, we simply don’t notice it. That’s why, though nationalism is the most important, defining factor in our social and political life, it is so ill understood.

Nationalism is, above all, a form of consciousness which projects the image of social/political reality as consisting of sovereign communities of inclusive (that is cutting through lines of status and class) identity, whose members are fundamentally equal. The English in the 16th century were the first to envision reality this way and called such communities “nations,” appropriating for this the word “nation,” which at the time meant “an elite.” That is the derivation of “nationalism.” The word “nation” was made the synonym of the word “people,” which, before that, referred specifically to the lower classes, and thereby equated the entire population, irrespective of social position, with the elite, in principle wiping out class distinctions and creating a community of inclusive identity. Before the birth of nationalism, only “the people of Israel” – the Jewish community as conceived in the Bible – implied such fundamental equality of membership. However, this was not accompanied by the presupposition of the people’s sovereignty, since sovereignty belonged to God, nor by the assumption that other communities were also communities of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity. Thus, ancient Israel and the Jewish community in the subsequent millennia before the 20th century cannot be said, as it sometimes is, to have a national consciousness and to constitute a nation.

The core nationalist principles of popular sovereignty and fundamental equality of membership made the personal identity of every member of a nation dignified. Before nationalism, the great majority of humanity had no experience of dignity, only narrow upper strata enjoyed it, but nationalism made this experience common. Dignity became a defining experience of human life. The connection between one’s personal dignity and membership in a nation made one invested in the dignity of the nation. Since, as a general rule, dignity is a relative good, measured in the coin of respect, prestige, or standing among others, nationalism is an inherently competitive consciousness (conducive to envy). The enjoyment of dignity is rarely secure, one is ever on the alert against slights to one’s (or one’s national) dignity, which can be slighted simply by the improvement in the standing of another. This is the psychological dynamics behind all the political conflicts within and between nations, making all modern politics identity politics.

Some nations, however, are more sensitive to such slights than others and may be expected to be more aggressive as a result. Before its recent globalization into China and India, whose nationalism has not been studied enough to allow characterization, three types of national consciousness (and related institutions) developed. These are, in the order of appearance, first: the individualistic/civic nationalism, combining the definition of the nation/people as a composite entity, an association of individuals (as in “We, the people…”) with in principle voluntary nationality or membership in the nation. This is the type of nationalism least sensitive to slights to the national dignity. Second: the collectivistic/civic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with its own will and interests, and in principle voluntary nationality. Third: the most common type of nationalism, collectivistic/ethnic type, combining the definition of the nation as a collective individual with the nationality determined by blood, i.e., genetically. Ethnic nationalism is, in effect, a form of racism; ethnic nations are extremely sensitive to perceived slights to their dignity, very easily mobilized in its defense, and, as a result very aggressive.

The unexpected “coming out” of China as a nation redrew the political map of the world and redefined the positions of the frontrunners in the competition for dignity, changing the established pecking order and undermining their sense of security in it. The reaction of these frontrunners to this unexpected development was the reassertion of their claims to the respect of the world, which, given what nationalism is, could be expected. Such challenges to the prestige of nations actively competing for international hegemony happened before, provoking, among others, the two world wars. Preventive measures must include, above all else, the understanding of the nature of nationalism as such. Nationalism understood, in the US, specifically, they must include dispelling the confusion about American national identity, reigning since the dissolution of the USSR, in order to know what in the nation’s way of life is worth fighting for and what can, if need be, given up for peace.

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