Liah Greenfeld, professor of sociology, political science, and anthropology at Boston University, talks with Brookings Institution Press Director Bill Finan about her new book, “Nationalism: A Short History.” She explains her broad definition of nationalism, Shakespeare’s role in shaping the language of democracy and modernity, and how modern notions of “white nationalism” may not be nationalism at all.
The Boston Globe, July 10, 2019:
Boston University professor Liah Greenfeld has been thinking and writing on nationalism for much of her career, and in her new book “Nationalism: A Short History ” (Brookings Institution), she argues that nationalism is the driving force behind the great shifts in global history, and explains, in a clear and readable way, how and why this is so. “The history of nationalism essentially is the history of the march of equality across the world: the history of how it conquered in some places and stumbled in others, and of the myriad positive and negative ways it has affected our lives and changed humanity’s existential experience.” Greenfeld illuminates shifting notions of nationhood, and the ways in which a sense of national identity has propelled and continues to propel us, in individual experience and sweeping global consequences.
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.
American Affairs Volume III, Number 2 (Summer 2010): 151–64
By Liah Greenfeld
The great and good of the Western world are alarmed. Nationalism, they say—rising from the primeval depths of biological human nature, untouched by the civilizing influences of History whose telos is global democracy—undermines the achievements of enlightened humanity. It poses an inherent threat to just societies—those based on the universal values of freedom, equality, and fraternity. Promoted by uneducated people of ill will, this nationalism is supposedly anti-subaltern, despite the fact that most of its representatives by definition belong to the lower classes. This nationalism is said to be essentially white and Judeo-Christian, though the overwhelming majority of its proponents come from China and India and thus are neither.
Critics of nationalism are moved to these incongruous claims primarily by the events of the last three years that have occurred at the core of the Western world (the United States and leading western European nations such as Britain and France)—specifically Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the resilience of Rassemblement National (formerly the Front National) despite the victory of Emmanuel Macron. Their consideration of the expressions of nationalism elsewhere is both selective and an afterthought; therefore the contradictions in their outcries do not appear obvious.
Western concern about the rising tide of nationalism engulfing the world is contradictory because, to begin with, these opponents of nationalism speak from a position created by nationalism. Their ideas of social and political reality; of a just society as a democratic society; of the historical necessity of globalization; their values of freedom, equality, and fraternity (i.e., inclusive identity); and even their belief in the existence of separate races into which they divide humanity—all these are products of nationalism, inconceivable outside its framework, and ingredients of their (Western) national consciousness. Their analysis of the current situation (if their published laments can even be called analysis) suffers from a complete lack of self-analysis. They do not understand the world in which we all live, and, unable to understand the world around them, they do not understand themselves. A predicament, indeed.
The fact is that the world we live in was made by nationalism. Nationalism is the cultural framework of modernity. Modern consciousness is national consciousness. This means that we see reality through the lens of nationalism, or that reality is constructed by nationalism. This in turn means that everything that is modern—both good and bad—in politics, society, economy, personal relations, literature, science, and so on, is neither the result of an inevitably progressing civilization, nor an expression of an incorrigible human nature. All the ingredients of modernity are here because of nationalism.
American Affairs Volume II, Number 4 (Winter 2018): 145–59
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
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.
By Liah Greenfeld
First published in H-Nationalism as Left and Right around (and within) Nationalism, November 2017
The familiar terms of “left” and “right” acquired their political meaning in 1789, at the start of the French Revolution. Let us further unpack this momentous connection.
This pivotal event, which, in many ways, inaugurated the Age of Nationalism, was the first collective expression of national consciousness in France, while France was the first society into which this new spirit was imported from Britain, where it was born. The Revolution was inspired by nationalism and represented an attack on the pre-national form of the social order – ancien régime – and the social consciousness on which it was based. This social consciousness was religious, monarchical, and hierarchical, presupposing the obedience of the secular world to divine authority, differences of fundamental nature between social strata, and corresponding differences in rights between them. In distinction, national consciousness is secular, democratic, and egalitarian, presupposing popular sovereignty and an egalitarian community of identity, inclusive of the entire population of the country. Because England, where this consciousness emerged, called such community “nation,” “nationalism” is the name for the related complex of phenomena. Continue reading