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