QOTM - September

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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@northeastern.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).  

Hello all,

After a brief hiatus in August, the Question of the Month is back. It's been a busy summer for scholars of nationalism, and with the US election fast approaching, the fall is setting up to be even busier. 2020 looks set to be a watershed year in the field of nationalism studies, and will quite possibly shift the field entirely over the coming years. With this is mind we ask:

How significant is 2020 to scholars of nationalism? Can this be considered a moment of global nationalism, on a par with 1968 or 1989? What key factors have contributed to the nationalist boom that we have seen this year? How do you think future scholars of nationalism will talk about 2020, and what role will this year play in our scholarly work over the coming years?

As always we welcome any and all comments on this question, so please spread it far and wide to anyone who might be interested in contributing! We look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Simon A. Purdue -- Network Editor

The main difference between the events of 1989-91 and 2020 is optimism and pessimism respectively. The events relating to the collapse of communist regimes in the late 1980s and early 1990s aligned with a liberal outlook and came alongside – and indeed contributed to – the end of the Cold War. When combined with the widening and deepening of European integration, even the suffering in the former Yugoslavia seemed to suggest that this ‘bad’ ‘ethnic’ nationalism was a historical relic.

In 2020 nationalist movements have been captured by authoritarian figures and movements that are critical of ‘experts’ setting up a political tension between different visions of governance: that of an enlightened ‘Brahmin’ class and that seeing virtue residing in ‘the People’. All this also comes at a time – and in deed contributes to – a new Cold War between reviving authoritarian powers and increasingly authoritarian liberal ones.

Nationalism is always populist, but back in 1989 it often aligned with democratisation and liberalism; hence the emphasis on ‘civic’ nationalism within debates in academia and the practice of liberalism nationalism by governments in Western countries and newly-sovereign post-communist states. In 2020, the focus on nationalism has given way to attention on populism, although the two should not be seen as separate. The question for scholars is why do nationalism and populism combine and with what political resonance and consequences?

As for the factors that have seen the nationalist ‘boom’ in 2020, as scholars we need to keep this year in context. Covid has exacerbated conditions that were already present. As a scholar of English nationalism, it is clear that the socio-political dividing lines over responses to the pandemic had already been sharpened during Brexit and existed for at least a decade before that. This is presumably true in other states and nations.

As scholars of nationalism I think we have a role in augmenting the now-dominant explanation for the radicalisation of nationalism in the 2010s in Europe and the US. This explanation argues that declining living standards prior to and after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) caused this radicalisation. But we can add a supply-side explanation. The historical record suggest that declining material fortunes certainly seem to lead to radicalisation, but on their own they do not translate into political action. Political entrepreneurs need to fill the space left by mainstream parties wedded to policies and politics that seem to hasten citizens’ material decline. That they have done so by using nationalist-populism is something that we can help explain.

Therefore, as scholars of nationalism we should seek to address questions about why responses have been nationalistic and what that means for everyday and political understandings of nationhood.

Dear All,

This is an excellent question, and one that points to the ways in which the history of nationalism has long been global, or at least supra-national, in its nature. Along with Ben Welling's thoughtful comments, I'll suggest a few other angles to it. 

As I read the question I found myself thinking about the longer history of global moments in the history of nationalims, including 1848 and 1914, and what they tell us about the broader trajectory of nationalism and its complex relationship with globalization. I wonder if the current pandemic and increasingly striking evidence of rapid environmental degradation suggest a shifting balance between the global and the national, with the former seeming increasingly urgent in nature. 

Whether or not that will prove to be true will hinge in part on the outcome of the 2020 U.S. elections, which may see the inauguration of a new political regime in the United States that is self-consciously multilateral in its strategies, humanitarian in its rhetoric, and oriented towards more open borders. I can imagine a scenario in which 2020 becomes a kind of anti-2016, in which significant poltical forces, at least within the United States, rally behind a vision of global integration and alliance-making. Whether or not that happens, and what exactly it would mean for the broader history of nationalism, is of course a matter of speculation at present.  

Kind Regards, 

David Prior

To answer the original question, I think it is further evidence of nationalism as a sub-stratum onto which all politics is built and as something turned to in times of crisis. Beyond that, as Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, it is too soon to tell. A lot of that is because we are very much in medium re with coronavirus. I can see plausible scenarios where vaccine nationalism becomes a thing, or where the failure of populist nationalists like Trump and Bolsonaro to deal with the virus lead to a backlash against populist nationalism.

It may also be that 2020 does not represent a denouement like 1989. Orban was elected ten years ago, Modi six years ago, Trump four years ago, Bolsonaro two years ago, all while, as Ben indicates, Brexit has been a running sore. The collapse of the Soviet Union was sudden and quick. It may be that a comparison with the mid nineteenth century is more appropriate; if liberal democracy is to lose as the anciens régimes did, it will not happen all at once.

Turning to Ben's comment, I would note that optimism and pessimism are very much dependent on your point of view; sadly, a lot of people might be optimistic about less liberal democracy. The point you make, though, is very true; there was optimism amongst the elites in the West about opening up of the USSR and Warsaw Pact, and there is pessimism about the wave of populism that we see at the moment. However, I think we need to be wary of overstating the certainty of the optimism of 1989. While there was definitely hope for a better future, there was a lot of confusion and uncertainty about what on earth was going on; the collapse of the Soviet Union came as something of a surprise to the west.

I wonder if perhaps the optimism that led people to see economic opportunities in perestroika will also lead people to see economic opportunities in whatever this phenomenon we see at the moment is.

The story that Zhou Enlai commented, when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, that it was too soon to tell is a nice story, but he was almost certainly talking about the 1968 disturbances, not about 1789.

This is a very interesting and relevant question. There are a number of approaches that might be taken to this, but I think that David Landon Cole's observation that nationalism is a sub-stratum on to which politics is built is particularly important. If, as many observers have claimed, populist mobilisation and success is part of an anti-liberal wave of politics, one of the reasons for this is that liberals (both centre-left and centre-right) discounted the power of nationalism. Moreover, I would suggest that nationalism never goes away but is present in each individual political culture (whether benign or not).

I recall that many academics believed that the nation-state and nationalism had become redundant as a result of globalisation, modernisation and the end of communism. While 1968, 1989 and 2020 have different dynamics, the importance of nation and state remained central to the lives of most people living in the world (and especially in Europe, where the European Union was attempting to build a post-nationalist polity). Significantly the calls for more Europe in response to crisis have largely gone unheeded.

Despite the unity over Brexit and the UK, where 2020 might be different from 1968 or 1989 is that European integration is not on offer as a solution to the issues that states are facing.

Another factor worth considering is that the international environment has changed. In 1968 and 1989 there was considerable instability but this was managed within existing institutions. In 1968 the Cold War and the confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union framed the policy choices across the globe. This provided considerable stability and an assurance that each great power would support its allies (for example no Communists in government in France or Italy; no liberalisation in Eastern Europe).

This stability was maintained in 1989-91. In the face of the collapse of the Soviet Union the US became hegemonic but it maintained its commitment to stability among the states not just in Europe but elsewhere. The US opposed the break up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia from a conservative view point, but then actively managed the transition to statehood of the various countries that appeared.

This option is no longer available in 2020. The US is a force for instability in the global system. There is also the rise of a new and aggressive power in China, which is likely to lead to further confrontation if not war no matter who wins the presidential election this year. Instability and uncertainty might be the best way to distinguish 2020 from previous times.
At the general level I would argue that the state remains the key political actor in 2020 as it has been since the 17th century. This is not to say the nature of the state remains the same, but it important to recognise that most citizens of states look to the state for support in times of crisis. Globalisation now as in the past brings out strong nationalist responses from the citizens, often focused on foreigners and others.

This need not always be negative: Hitler and others in the 1930s were able to mobilise populations around aggressive and expansionist policies, whereas Roosevelt and the Scandinavian social democrats were able to introduce policies that enhanced welfare and extended the state's responsibility for its citizens while remaining democratic. As Ben suggests the role of political entrepreneurs is vitally important to outcome.

If globalisation is a-political (or is claimed to be by certain centrist politicians) nationalism becomes available to those who do not accept this.

There is a fine balance between supporting globalisation as a positive (which I would share) and addressing the requirements of those who are displaced by that process. This is where the state and the nation comes in, as it is here that policy can be framed to modify or curtail the negative impact of globalisation. My sense is that liberal elites always underestimate the power of nationalism and will continue to do so to their cost.

If I can return to the 'too soon to tell' theme (thanks to Robert Cribb for correcting me on the story's background - I honestly thought it was about the French Revolution!), I think it's certainly true, in regard of Brian Girvin's comment, that 2020 does not offer the same opportunities for European integration that we had in the late sixties and early nineties. However, a different form of integration does seem to be happening; the ECB has bought heroic amounts of debt from member states, and the Recovery Plan will see further European borrowing to help member states get out of the crisis that coronavirus has caused. That is a form of integration, if for no other reason that it makes it harder for states to leave the EU as there would then be potentially very difficult discussions about their share of the debt. While the UK was not the only member state that had a strained relationship with the EU, it was the most obstreperous, and I don't see that the UK would have gone along with the EU Recovery Plan. However, you can also see how a populist, nationalist leader could use that situation to foment anti-EU feeling and call for leaving the EU. If Germany has effectively underwritten, though the EU, the debt of other member states and starts asking for changes in those states to make sure the debt is repayed, you can easily see that becoming a real bone of contention.

A follow on to Brian Girvin's interesting comment. Globalisation in economics has been a neo-liberal capitalist form (even with variations in forms of government), compounded by digitisation and its controlling potential, and now by social media.

In fact globalisation has been the strongest cause of resurgent nationalism, while the inequalities delivered by neo-liberalism have been the major cause of related populism and populist nationalism.