Nationalism’s Dividends

By Liah Greenfeld

Here are some facts about China from the World Bank:

Since initiating market reforms in 1978 . . . China has expe­rienced rapid economic and social development. GDP growth has averaged nearly 10% a year—the fastest sustained expan­sion by a major economy in history—and more than 850 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty. . . . Although China’s GDP growth has gradually slowed since 2012, as needed for a transition to more balanced and sustainable growth, it is still relatively high by current global standards.

There is nothing in the entire history of the world that compares to this Chinese achievement of last forty years, in terms of both the magnitude and rapidity of its impact on the condition of humanity. Between 1990 and 2005, China accounted for more than three-quarters of global poverty reduction. Anyone wishing to make the world better, and to reduce human suffering, should observe, study, and follow the example of the Chinese government.

How was China able to achieve such extraordinary economic success? It did so by encouraging the spread of economic nationalism.

Mainstream academic “theories” of nationalism, which still domi­nate comparative politics bibliographies in run-of-the-mill courses in the social sciences, affirm that nationalism arises out of the inde­pendently emerging needs of the modern economy. These “theories” are essentially Marxist in their inspiration and rely for evidence either on altogether fictional cases, such as “blue” people and the states of “Ruritania” and “Megalomania,” or on cases carefully selected because they obligingly (but only apparently, as it happens) fit the proposed speculations. Such speculations do not take history into account and thus usually get it backwards. Contrary to these theories, history shows that the modern economy is the product—not the creator—of nationalism.

A modern economy is an economy systematically oriented to­ward growth instead of subsistence, unlike premodern economies. Since the nineteenth century, this systematic orientation toward growth has been referred to as “capitalism.” But it could be observed well before it was so named—since the mid-sixteenth century, after the first society to develop national consciousness, England, began consciously pursuing economic nationalism. This modern economic orientation has led to the consistent (and dramatic, in comparison to all the previous centuries of human history) accumulation of wealth: first in nations that practiced it and then, because of their impact, the world as a whole. It contributed to the explosion of the human pop­ulation, allowing a far greater percentage of infants born to sur­vive than was possible in precapitalist ages. All this—economic growth, capitalism, rising standards of living, and the concomitant drop in infant mortality—was the result of nationalism.

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American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2010): 151–64

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