10 Claims Regarding the Globalization of Nationalism

Liah Greenfeld

Keynote lecture at the First Plenary Session: New Nationalism in a Global Perspective, the International Political Science Association World Congress, July 11, 2021.

Nationalism is such an important phenomenon, that a 25-minutes-long speech can only whet our appetite for learning more about it.

Therefore, I shall basically state 10 related claims each of which deserves at least 25 minutes at the World Congress of the International Political Science Association focusing on the subject, and very briefly outline the empirical and logical foundation behind them. I hope we’ll be able to develop these claims during the discussion period of the session. And you can find them developed in my various publications over the last 30 years, in the course of which I have conducted comparative research on which they are based. These 3 decades of comparative research resulted in and then repeatedly confirmed the empirical, objective definition of nationalism as a specific form of consciousness, the way of envisioning and experiencing reality, at the core of which lies the image of the world as naturally divided into sovereign communities of fundamentally equal members, however the membership is defined, and inclusive identity, which are called nations. These principles of nationalism – popular sovereignty, fundamental equality of membership, and inclusive identity – are symbolized, among other things, in the motto of the French Revolution: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity – Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite. Nationalism emerged almost 3 centuries before the French Revolution and underlay all the revolutions and revolutionary movements in the past 550 years. The emergence of nationalism in the 16th century England was the most revolutionary event of the past millennium: it completely refashioned human existential experience.

Now, the claims:

Claim 1: Nationalism is the most important political phenomenon of our age. It lies behind all of modern politics, essentially defining modern political culture.

Claim 2: Specifically, nationalism lies behind modern democracy, liberal and authoritarian, the presumption that just societies should have governments of the people, for the people, and by the people, and the institutions in which this presumption is implemented. In fact, every nation is a democracy. The moment a society defines itself as a nation, in other words, it becomes a democracy.

Claim 3: All the modern political ideologies and platforms, left and right, all the varieties of socialism (including national socialism), communism, classical liberalism, populism, fascism, feminism, LGBT, C(ritical)R(ace)T(heory), are products of nationalism and inconceivable outside its framework. The very concepts of left and right have meaning only within the framework of nationalism.

Claim 4:  The mass appeal of nationalism, responsible for its evidently irresistible spread from one small country in Western Europe – England, where it emerged in the 16th century, over the entire world, in other words, responsible for the current globalization of nationalism, is due to the fact that national identity endows personal identities of the common people within nations with dignity.

Claim 5: Because personal dignity derives from the membership in the nation, national populations are naturally committed to the dignity of the nation as a whole. This makes nationalism inherently competitive. Nationalism is a competitive consciousness. The competition between nations is for international prestige, or dignity, and since prestige, or dignity, is a relative value, there are no permanent winners and the competition must be constant. All international conflicts are essentially over dignity.

Claim 6: Since competition between nations is essentially over dignity, and the prize can be (however temporarily) won in any arena, from the beauty of the women to military prowess, nations indeed compete in every arena. However, they prefer to compete in those arenas where they have the best chance to end on the top. Thus, Russia, for example, has always chosen to compete in high culture (science, literature, ballet) and in military strength, while disregarding economic competition.

Claim 7: Because of the individualistic nature of the original, that is, English, nationalism, England (and then Great Britain) chose the economy as an arena of competition for international prestige and respect. The centrality of the individual among national values made the activity of the vast majority of individuals a natural focus for national energies. Economic nationalism, therefore, emerged in England as early as nationalism; it was an obvious refraction of the national consciousness in the consciousness of the economically active masses. Economic nationalism—that is, the competition for international prestige on the economic arena—produced capitalism, the modern economy oriented to growth, in distinction to pre-modern, pre-national, economies, which were all, in accordance with the principle of economic rationality, oriented to subsistence.  

Claim 8: England – the first nation—was intensely competitive before it had any competitors. This, within a century raised it to the status of the world superpower. The example of England (later Britain) drew many, though certainly not all, other countries into economic competition and, as a result, made them into capitalist economies. Capitalism, specifically the economic competition, that is, the choice of the economy as the arena for the nationalist competition for prestige or dignity, in turn has proven to be instrumental in attracting previously uncommitted populations to nationalism. This feedback loop occurs only in collectivistic nationalisms. The two most important cases of nationalist mobilization of the population through capitalism are Germany in the middle of the 19th century and China in the late 20th century to the present day.

Claim 9:  Globalization, though usually seen as the opposite of nationalism, is, in fact, a product of nationalism and, to the extent that the world is becoming unified, it is becoming unified in the shared – national – consciousness. The driver behind globalization is, therefore, not economic (as is often believed to be), but cultural, or, to be more precise, mental: the shared national consciousness – shared vision of the world as naturally divided into sovereign communities of fundamentally equal members and inclusive identity, called nations – makes the communities sharing this vision wish to compete for international standing, dignity, prestige. The wider nationalism spreads, the more globalized, in other words, it becomes, the more nations are drawn into this competition, which, when its arena is the economy, is cut-throat, and when its arena is military, is warlike. The competition is likely to be most intense among the front-runners, such as the United States, Russia, and now China.

Claim 10: Nationalism brings us popular sovereignty, equality, inclusive society – that is, democracy. It brings us personal dignity. And it forever keeps us on the brink of a world war.

What are the empirical and logical foundations on which these claims rest?

Nationalism emerged as a result of a protracted series of civil wars in the second half of the 15th century in England, known as the Wars of the Roses. The source of the conflict was the rivalry between the York and Lancaster branches of the Plantagenet royal family, both of which lay claim to the English crown. The entire English feudal aristocracy was involved in the conflict on the one side or the other, sometimes consistently, sometimes changing sides, and by the end of the conflict in 1485, it was almost entirely physically destroyed. This was an historical contingency which set in motion a novel and, in the framework of the existing social consciousness, unimaginable social process.

A new dynasty, the Tudors, poor and nearly common relatives of the Lancaster branch, gained the throne and needed an aristocracy to help them rule, but there was no aristocracy. This need and the vacuum on the top of the social hierarchy triggered upward social mobility, first of the particularly intelligent and educated people from below, who formed the new aristocracy, then general upward movement to fill the better positions below the aristocracy that were vacated. A century of mostly upward social mobility ensued.

The form of consciousness that existed at the time, at the core of which lay the image of the rigidly stratified social order, created once and for all by God, and thus unchangeable and allowing man no freedom of choosing one’s social position. The social order consisted of three functional orders, on the top of which was the narrow military order of nobility – the bellatores – whose function it was to defend the Church, the community of the faithful, by the force of arms. On the bottom was the huge, mass order, to which between 80 and 90% of the population belonged, of the laborers – laboratores or the people in European vernaculars – put on earth to support the upper orders, and the middle there existed a rather extensive order of the clergy – oratores – mediators between the all-important transcendental realm and mortal men, whose responsibility was to pray for the faithful. No social mobility was conceivable between the upper and the lower orders: they were mutually exclusive, imagined very much as we today imagine different animal species who cannot mix; it was even believed that the nature of their blood was different: red in the veins of the laborers, but blue in those of the nobility. The clergy, which was celibate, recruited its lower ranks from the laboring masses and its very narrow upper stratum from the nobility, and though it did occur in isolated cases that a uniquely endowed clergyman of common origin (clearly, chosen by God) rose to the position of a prince of the Church, these rare individual occurrences, which were by definition miracles, did not suggest the possibility of social mobility and, because of the vow of celibacy, did not interfere with the mutual exclusivity of the upper and lower strata. Only the upper orders had any experience of dignity; the experience of the people – the 80 to 90% of the population was limited to humility and abnegation. They were perceived by themselves and others as low, vile; the synonyms of the word “people” in the 16th century would be “rabble,” “plebs,” “canaille.”

But these contemptuous terms no longer applied to the new aristocrats, who rose to their exalted positions thanks to their own choice and initiative, as a result of upward social mobility. They could not deny to themselves that they came from the people, that their blood was red; as such, they knew humility and abnegation, and the sense of their own unworthiness. But they also knew and would not give up the dignity they acquired as aristocrats and occupied positions that, their consciousness told them, could only be occupied by those whose blood was blue. Their experience was in sociological terms anomic, confusing, it was that of status-inconsistency, and because the part of it, which was inconceivable within the framework of the existing consciousness, was so satisfying, they had to rationalize it (in the sense of making it both understandable and legitimate) in different terms. Such reinterpretation implied a different image of reality, a new consciousness.

As they began – unselfconsciously – constructing a new consciousness, they naturally used available cultural resources. One such available resource was the concept of the nation, used in ecclesiastical councils where limits to Papal authority were discussed by representatives of temporal rulers and princes of the Church. The word “nation” (“natio” in Latin) was very old, but before its employment in ecclesiastical councils, it had zero political meaning and its socio-cultural significance was very limited. Conciliar nations were factions or parties of the medieval respublica Christiana, tiny groups of highly placed people with the authority to decide the life and death questions in regard to the populations whose rulers they represented. Both the socio-cultural and political significance of this concept was enormous: nations were exalted cultural and political elites. One fine day in the beginning of the 16th century, as the new English aristocrats from the people tried to explain to themselves their extraordinary experience of upward mobility, one of them chanced on the idea that the English people was a nation.

The equation of the two diametrically opposed concepts, the people as contemptible lower order and the nation as the dignified bearer of supreme cultural and political authority, changed the meaning of both and created a new concept of the people as nation, which became the essence of a new image of society, transforming the nature of consciousness and of reality, which was experienced through it. By dint on this equation the lower classes were elevated to the dignity of the elite; they became members of the same community, sharing in the same, inclusive identity, no longer divided into self-enclosed exclusive orders, as was the case in the feudal society; as this community was in its entirety possessed of the supreme authority to decide its own fate, that is, self-governing, sovereign, it was fundamentally a community of equals. The national community, the people-nation, therefore, was defined by popular sovereignty, fundamentally egalitarian, and inclusive in its identity. These being precisely the principles of democratic society, the nation thus was a democracy by definition. Nationalism, the consciousness at the core of which lay this image of a natural society, implied democracy. Membership in a nation, in a democracy, made dignity general experience.

The principles of nationalism could be interpreted differently, leading to different institutional implementation. The nation could be seen as an association of individuals or as a collective individual, in the former case national consciousness would be individualistic, stressing the rights of individuals, in the latter collectivistic, emphasizing group rights. Membership in the nation (nationality or national identity) could be seen as voluntary, producing civic nationalism, or as inherent, transmitted by blood, producing ethnic nationalism. Individualistic nationalism, which, logically, could be only civic, institutionalized as liberal democracy, collectivistic-ethnic nationalism resulted in authoritarian democracy, while collectivistic-civic nationalism, an ambivalent type, could lead, under certain conditions, to liberal democracy, and, under other conditions, to the authoritarian one, as the historical record of France, for instance, so clearly demonstrates. There are historical examples (for good logical/psychological reasons) of the transformation of individualistic-civic nationalisms in the direction of collectivistic and, specifically, ethnic ones, but none of the transformation in the opposite direction. The focus on race and other physical characteristics and rights of groups, defined by physical characteristics, in the United States and Britain, today transforms the originally individualistic-civic national consciousness in these countries into collectivistic-ethnic nationalisms. This is one of the new developments as regards nationalism. The emerging collectivistic-ethnic character of the originally individualistic-civic American and British nationalisms, in turn, changes the nature of democracies in these countries from liberal democracy into authoritarian one.

The most important such new development, unquestionably, is the final globalization of nationalism as it is penetrating the colossal population of China. After decades of failed efforts to achieve this on the part of the Chinese government, the hundreds of millions of Chinese are at last fervently engaged in the national project. From the beginning of the 20th century, successive governments in China were self-consciously nationalist. The Communist government, in the course of its 70-year-long rule, has shrewdly pursued the supreme nationalist goal: prestige or dignity of the nation. But until the 1980s in China national consciousness was limited to a narrow elite, leaving the masses basically untouched. Though education traditionally, for over a thousand years, provided a venue for upward mobility and, unlike in Europe, elite positions were allocated on the basis of examinations, rather than birth, there was no sense of equality between the upper strata of the educated and the common lot, and the high-handed policies of the Communist government contributed little to its creation. Equality, in fact (and likely because status rested on education and mobility was both conceivable and legitimate) was assumed but not at all emphasized by Chinese nationalism: dignity vis-à-vis other nations was nationalists’ sole concern. The hundreds of millions of Chinese did not share in it as they did not share in the dignity of the educated, it had no relevance to them.

This changed dramatically with Chinese government’s turn to the capitalist economy with Deng Xiao Ping. The explicit definition of economic power as the central pillar of China’s greatness awakened ordinary Chinese to nationalism’s appeal. After a century of slowly fomenting among Chinese intellectuals, national sentiment has captured and redefined the consciousness of vast masses of Chinese people during the recent decades of China’s economic boom. Having become direct contributors to the nation’s dignity, these masses now have a stake in it, it has become their dignity and they are embracing national identity and converting to national consciousness. It is this mass conversion which allows President Xi to demand recognition from the world and insist on an international status commensurate with the country’s vast population and with the intellectuals’ conception of China’s rightful – that is, the central – place. Because of the globalization of nationalism, indeed, our era will likely be remembered as the time when a new global order, with China at the helm, was born.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s