The World Nationalism Made

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.  

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American Affairs Volume II, Number 4 (Winter 2018): 145–59

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.

Left, Right, and Nationalism

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

Approaching Human Nature Empirically

April 29, 2017, talk at the “Revisiting Maslow: Human Needs in the 21st Century” workshop at Princeton University.

Abstract: Human nature has been a subject of speculative thinking for ages. But it is an empirical phenomenon and, as with any empirical phenomenon, the only way to acquire objective, reliable knowledge about it is to begin with separating it from adjacent empirical phenomena. Today, developments in biology allow us to know exactly what separates humanity from the animal world, to which it also belongs — we, therefore, no longer need to speculate what makes us human. The talk will focus on what comparative zoology teaches us about human nature.

 

Humanity differs dramatically from non-human social animals in its behavior and the organization of its ways of life. No other social species, for instance, organizes its ways of life (i.e., its social order) so variably or allows such an enormous scope for individual creativity/deviance. Human societies are remarkably flexible in comparison to the rigid social orders of other intelligent social species, such as lions, wolves, and even primates. This vast difference makes humanity a reality of its own kind and, therefore, a separate subject of study, which justifies the existence of social sciences and humanities: for social sciences, too, despite their name, do not focus on the many complex and highly differentiated societies that exist, from those of ants and bees to those of baboons and chimpanzees, but exclusively on human societies. Yet, it proved impossible to account for this difference by the difference of the human animal from other animals, or genetically. Genetically, our species is different from other animal species to different degrees, clearly much more different from some than from others. But even species within our biological family – the primates – remain as drastically different from us behaviorally as are those on altogether different branches of biological evolution. Only 2% of the genome of our species, which we somewhat arrogantly and in ignorance of other animals’ cognitive capacities call homo sapiens, distinguish our animal nature from that of our closest genetic relative, the chimp. These two percent must account for the different shapes of our and chimps’ bodies and sculls, postures, distribution of bodily hair, the different organic diseases to which we and they are subject, our different life spans and procreation patterns – all the things that separate two closely related species from the same family, such as horses and donkeys, lions and tigers, or chimps and orangutans, etc., from each other. None is left in this small biological difference for the explanation of the vast differences on the behavioral level – the difference in the organization of our ways of life, which make humanity stand so completely out of the animal world.

But, if it is not our biology, then what? Comparative zoology provides an answer. While all other animals transmit their ways of life (primarily) genetically, we transmit our ways of life almost exclusively by means of symbols. This is a qualitative difference – a difference in kind, which puts us into a different category of being. This is what makes us human.

The process of genetic transmission is the process of life, the subject of biology. As animals, we are involved in this process and, as living beings, we share numerous biological needs with other animals. Like them, we must breathe and eat, like many of them, we must have shelter, like all the social animals, we must belong to a group, and so on – to survive as animals. But, in addition to being animals, we are also something else. In addition to being part of the process of life and subject to its laws, we also participate in a different, autonomous process (that is, a process ruled by other than biological laws) – the process of symbolic transmission of our ways of life, which we call culture. Culture adds a dimension on top of our animal nature, superimposing another nature on it, so to speak. It is this other superimposed nature that makes us human. Human nature is cultural, in other words. To understand it, we must analyze culture.

In the rest of the talk, if there is time, I can develop on this and actually analyze culture along the lines of the two first chapters of Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. What is clear even before such an analysis is that human needs (which are different from animal needs which can be deduced from the nature of the life – organic, biological – processes, which may be largely the same for a whole branch of the phylogenetic tree or, to revert to the Linnaean terminology, a whole class of animals, such as mammals) can only be deduced from the nature of the cultural process, in general, and, because of the extreme variability of cultures, from the nature of specific cultures. With human needs created by cultures, it would not stand to reason that needs of people in Tokugawa Japan, Imperial China, or tribal Arabia, for instance, would be the same as the needs of citizens of modern democracies.

To Combat Terrorism, Tackle Mental Illness

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in the New York Times, July 15, 2016

The comment of the French prime minister [“The times have changed, and France is going to have to live with terrorism”] can be interpreted as recognition that terrible events such as the mass killing in Nice Thursday night are a sign of a very long-term problem, which is unlikely to be speedily resolved. In this sense, France, like the United States, will indeed “have to learn to live with terrorism.”

Paradoxically, this is so precisely because “terrorism” is not an adequate diagnosis of such acts in the United States and Western Europe. Yes, they are acts of terror, and may even be inspired by Islamic militants. But they are also acts of mentally disturbed individuals.

The great majority of “homegrown” or “lone-wolf” terror acts are committed by people with a known history of mental illness, most often depression, which counts social maladjustment and problematic sense of self among its core symptoms. Severely depressed people are often suicidal, they find life unlivable. As a rule, they cannot explain their acute existential discomfort to themselves and may find ideologies hostile to their social environment – the society in which they experience their misery – appealing: such ideologies allow them to rationalize, make sense of the way they feel. Any available ideology justifying their maladjustment would do: Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel might have been inspired by radical Islam, but Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers in Dallas, had a different inspiration.

In a way, such ideologies serve for the mentally ill perpetrators as ready-made delusions, which, as we know also can inspire mass murders. Characteristically, the majority of mass murders, including lone-wolf terrorist acts, in Western countries are committed by people who are willing, in fact plan, to die while carrying them out. These acts offer them a spectacular, memorable, way out – a way of self-affirmation and suicide at once. An association with a great cause – and any ideology presents its cause as great – makes it all the more meaningful for them.

The rates of mental illness, especially depression, in the West are very high and, according to the most authoritative statistics, steadily rising. Unless we resolve this problem, we’ll have to learn to live with terrorism.

 

When animals and birds take on our own characteristics

By Liah Greenfeld

First published in South China Morning Post, June 28, 2015

Have you heard of Alex, the African Gray parrot, considered the smartest bird in the world? He lived in a cage of an animal behavior lab at Brandeis University, where his trainer, the scientist Irene Pepperberg worked. He spoke English with a sweet childish voice, could count and distinguish shapes. He was sensitive and creative. When Irene appeared flustered, he would tell her: “Take it easy. Calm down.” His beak made it difficult to pronounce the letter “p,” so, when asked to identify an apple, he invented the word “banerry” — half banana, half cherry, and, not knowing how to call a cake, suggested “yummy bread.” Irene trusted him to train younger chicks and, for some years, he actually taught at a university. At the end of their working day, Irene would return Alex to his cage, lock the lab, and go home. This is how it was the night of the heart attack that would kill him. Before she left, Alex told Irene: “I love you. Be good.” The next morning, she found him in the cage dead.

Alex’s brain was the size of a walnut. But his behavior was undeniably human. Which raises the question what is humanity. Clearly, to behave — to think, feel, act — like a human, it is not necessary to belong to the biological species of hairless monkeys with big brains, such as ours. But, if it is not our vaunted brain that makes us human, what does? Comparative zoology provides the answer. In the entire animal kingdom only humans transmit their ways of life symbolically, rather than genetically. Such symbolic transmission is what we call “culture.” The distinguishing characteristic of humanity, it is culture that makes us human.

In distinction to genetic transmission, culture is not an organic but an historical process, because the meaning of symbols changes with the context and always depends on time. Being of a different nature, culture cannot be explained biologically or reduced to biological phenomena, even though it requires the body with its physical needs to exist. Rather, and analogously to life, which also requires inanimate matter for its construction but cannot be reduced to or explained by it, culture represents an emergent reality, resulting from a most improbable accident in the organic reality within the conditions of which it emerges. Like life, it is a reality of its own kind, autonomous or operating according to specific to it causal laws, which affect the organic processes related to it and transform its physical environment.

We are all familiar with the dramatic effects of culture on the material world around us: our cities, means of transportation, the clothes on our backs, fields we till, land we reclaim from the oceans — all these are products of culture, material results of symbolic processes, of our thinking expressed in words, designs, plans. On the organic level, culture leaves its deepest imprint on the brain of the creatures it affects, transforming their very nature and life. For, as it forces the brain exposed to it to process symbolic stimuli, it creates within it an autonomous, symbolic and mental, phenomenon which is unknown in the natural world in which the brain processes only sensory stimuli — the mind. Otherwise called the soul, it, speaking empirically, is none other than culture in the brain. One becomes human when one acquires a mind.

The mind is acquired as a result of being exposed to culture and the necessity to adjust to a cultural environment; it is not a genetic characteristic. This has two significant implications. The first one is that nobody is born human. A baby of human parents is just an animal who is very likely to become human, not a human being, and given how prolonged infancy is among our animal species, only rarely do our babies develop a mind (and acquire humanity) before three years of age. The second implication is that animals of other species that procreate exclusively in the human, cultural, environment, such as, specifically, dogs and cats whom for thousands of years we have involved in most intimate aspects of our life, are, just like us, sharply distinguished from wild animals by culture, and, therefore, also human. What distinguishes these animals from us is not that we have a mind, while they don’t (because they certainly adjust to and thus have culture in the brain), but that the structure of their larynx — in distinction to that of African Gray parrots, for instance — is different from ours and does not allow them to articulate sound, depriving them of speech. They are humans who are physically disabled. This is in particular true of dogs, whose brain, inherited from arguably the most intelligent wild animal — the wolf — probably equals ours in its complexity and sophistication. (The claim of dogs’ humanity will resonate with anyone who has known a dog’s companionship, though the unquestioned identification of humanity with our species would have prevented most of us from admitting the truth of this claim even to oneself. Yet, very few would be able to explain until now what made homo sapiens species human.)

It would be hard to exaggerate the ethical significance of this logical inference from the empirically based definition of humanity. Our treatment of dogs and cats becomes subject to the same standards of judgment which we apply to our treatment of other defenseless and helpless members of our societies, such as little or disabled children. Like them, these acculturated animals are thrown on our mercy and entirely dependent on us for their survival and protection from suffering. When they suffer, their experience is not different from that of such children. Because these animals are part of humanity, because what makes us human must make them human as well, decent people and societies can no longer be indifferent to their suffering or tolerate intentional cruelty in their regard.

On June 22, the annual dog meat festival begins in Yulin. Dogs are human. Thus, this is a festival of cannibalism. But it is not what happens after death that is important. Before they are butchered and eaten, thousands of dogs are caught, shoved into dirty crates too small for the numbers they contain, and tracked, hungry, thirsty, suffocating, and terrified, to the place of their death. You can easily find photos of these transports on the Internet. Meet these dogs’ eyes. You won’t be able to sleep for weeks.