Question of the Month: July

Simon Purdue's picture

H-Nationalism’s Question of the Month series offers a forum for discussing the big questions surrounding research, pedagogy, and practice in the field of nationalism studies and the history of nationalism. Use the reply feature to join the conversation! Email Simon Purdue (purdue.s@husky.neu.edu) of Northeastern University if you’d like to propose a question of you own. If you need technical assistance with logging in and posting comments, please contact H-Net’s Help Desk (help@mail.h-net.org).  

Dear subscribers,

As the long hot summer of 2020 continues I hope you're all remaining healthy and safe. As always we have a new question ready for our Question of the Month series, and this month's edition seems particularly relevant. This month we are asking:

What are the prospects for a resurgence of "liberal," "civic," or more broadly left-leaning nationalism in the coming years? Is nationalism now the exclusive property of the right? Where, if anywhere, are the currents of a progressive form of nationalism strongest?

As always we look forward to hearing your opinions and expertise on this area! If you know anyone who may be interested but is not an H-Nationalism subscriber, please encourage them to join and contribute.

Best,

Simon Purdue, Series Editor

Dear All, 

This strikes me as a difficult topic that invites a revisiting of the broader question of the future of nationalism--if one thinks back to the heady moments of the 1990s when a new course for the future, built around multilaterialism and humanitiarianism, seemed at least a possibility. I do sense that we are on the brink of significant portions of the world either turning away from the currents of right-wing populism and back towards a liberal order with a tamed version of capitalism, or instead doubling down on a more authoritarian, patrimonial mode of governance. If things break in favor of the former, I think there is a question of whether this entails a revived version of a 20th-century liberal/civic nationalism or instead turns towards a avowedly global consciousness concerned with transnational, anational, problems like environmental collapse and the pandemic. No doubt there are many gradations of possibility betwee those two poles, and perhaps other possibilities obscured from my own vision. But at any rate, some preliminary evidence suggests that the forces of the current version of right-wing populism are now exposed on their weakest points--the capacity to engage with modern science and move beyond sloganeering towards sensible govenance. The future seems uncertain, in bad ways and good. 

Kind Regards, 

Dave Prior

This is a particularly difficult question to answer. At first sight it appears that right-wing and populist forms of nationalism have become dominant in many parts of the world, especially among well-established democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom and India. In addition, the appeal of right-wing nationalism (both conservative and radical) remains strong as recently proved to be the case in the Polish presidential elections and the general election in Spain. We might reformulate the question to ask whether civic or left-leaning nationalism has any appeal in current political circumstances, given the attraction that populist and right wing nationalism has. Perhaps progressives and left-leaning nationalists need a new type of politics that goes beyond nationalism itself.

This seems unlikely for a number of reasons. We still live in a world organised politically around states and nations. The twenty first century is no more unlikely to be post-nationalist than the nineteenth or twentieth centuries were. Nationalism in its multiple forms is likely to remain the foundation of politics and political competition. What are the consequences of this? The first is that world government is as elusive as it ever was, notwithstanding the best intentions of authors or intellectuals demonstrating its superiority over the ‘nation-state’.

Nor does European integration offer a realistic alternative to the primacy of state and nation. What the European Union and integration does show however is that it is possible for states to cooperate in a meaningful fashion to achieve positive sum outcomes. One of the reasons for the long-standing hostility of the Republican right in the US and populists everywhere to the EU is that it provides a benign model that remains within the state model but constrains the behaviour of those states for the greater good. This form of cooperation is anathema to those fixated on more conservative political forms because it requires multilateral organisations, the rule of law and the erosion of absolute sovereignty. I would suggest that if we are looking for a progressive institutional model in the twenty first century then the EU is one, though perhaps not the only source of this. Having said this, it should be borne in mind that philosophically the EU is anti-nationalist and in principle is committed to a post-nationalist federal system in Europe.

There is an implication in the question that there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalisms. But for liberals, socialists and cosmopolitans this is often a false dichotomy. For such critics, all forms of nationalism are bad due to their particularist nature and the need to distinguish the nation from the non-national other. This emphasis is contrasted to and falls short of world views based on universalism. The (liberal) Economist magazine reflected this view in an editorial about progress when it claimed that ‘Whenever nationalism becomes the chief organising principle of society, state violence is not far behind’(at https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2009/12/17/onwards-and-upwards). Such a view would dispute the possibility of a liberal or progressive nationalism (not that I accept the validity of the statement uncritically).

A further consideration is that the ethnic/civic distinction is not clear cut. Most if not all nationalism have both civic and ethnic aspects to them, though one side may predominate. In the current climate ethic nationalism is closely associated with those movement that emphasise national exclusiveness, the exceptional quality and superiority of this nation over others and a gilded version of history that gives priority to the dominant group within the state. Such movements have a narrow view of citizenship and who should be included as member of the nation/state. This has led to massive right wing mobilisation around the immigration issue as a consequence.

Not all nationalisms are xenophobic, right wing or exclusivist. Here is where civic nationalism may have a role to play. Those movements that claim to be civic or liberal do behave differently to conservative or populist nationalisms, but this does not mean that there are not ethnic aspects to their world view or appeal. Murray Leith’s research has found that while Members of the Scottish Parliament overwhelmingly consider Scottish nationalism to be civic, there are also strong ethnic features to Scottish national identity and nationhood (his Ph.D. thesis Nationalism and national identity in Scottish politics (2006) can be accessed at http://theses.gla.ac.uk/2924/).

Yet in policy terms it is normally the civic rather than the ethnic which predominates. A good example is the decision by the Scottish National Party government to include all those living in Scotland in the electorate on the independence referendum in 2014 (while excluding those born in Scotland living elsewhere). The contrast is with the decision taken by the UK Conservative government at the time of the referendum on European Union membership in 2016. The electorate on this occasion excluded EU citizens resident in the UK (except Ireland, Cyprus and Malta for complicated reasons). The result was that a significant section of the UK electorate (c. 5%) was excluded from a decision that would have a major impact on their lives.

The nature of the nationalism does have an impact on policy. Scottish nationalists are seeking independence and wish to demonstrate that secession would not involve any form of discrimination after that event. This has also been the argument of other secessionist movements (Catalonia and Quebec for instance). Most of these sub-state nationalisms have also embraced multiculturalism in terms of minorities, immigrants and other disadvantaged groups in their societies, as a sign of their openness. This is important for the secessionists as they need to demonstrate to the UN, the EU and other institutions that political independence will provide the highest level of protection for the citizens of the new state.

Well established states do not have to prove anything to these institutions. Indeed the US, Poland and Hungary among others have demonstrated a disregard for multiculturalism, human rights and respect for minorities. Indeed, in many respects conservative and right wing nationalists believe that legal protections for minorities and immigrants undermine the nation and its traditions. As a consequence, insurgent populist and right wing nationalism has shifted the debate to issues that they have defined and in the process pushed the political system to the right. Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties now find themselves under political pressure to compromise on issues such as immigration, the place of Muslims in their society and their role in the wider world.
I will try and answer the question. I remain uneasy about the use of liberal in respect of nationalism, despite some impressive defences of this position (Yael Tamir for instance). Liberalism is an individualist and universal philosophy, whereas nationalism is a collectivist and particularist one. It is more useful to apply the concept of civic to nationalism as it avoids the confusion with liberalism. The use of civil allows a movement to distinguish itself from ethnic and authoritarian nationalist movement but also from majoritarian and nativist ones. However, there are dangers here as well. A majority nationalist movement in a multinational state may believe it is civic (emphasising equality, citizenship and shared values) but this may marginalise minorities within the state and at its worst be a disguised form of national integration (which in effect is a form of nation-destroying as demonstrated in French integration policy since the French Revolution). Whether the civic version has a future remains an open question. There are examples of civic nationalism at work, but at the moment they are in the minority.

I do not wish to discount the possibility that progressive coalitions can be established which include civic nationalists, Greens, socialists and social democrats among others. But there are substantial differences between the nationalists and other progressive forces within such a coalition. In the face of secessionist movements who are the progressives? Is it the nationalists who wish to gain political independence or the social-democrats and liberals who favour political reform within the existing state system (Union)? This is the main dividing line within progressive politics in many parts of Europe. Agreement may be reached on issues such as welfare, minority rights or public expenditure, but on the major constitutional issue (secession versus union) agreement is impossible.