Question of the Month: December

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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).

Dear Subscribers,

It is hard to believe that we're already launching the final Question of the Month of 2020. This year has brought unprecedented challenges for all of us and I'm sure we're all hoping for a less eventful 2021. This year has brought into stark focus the importance of the study of nationalism, and has made very evident the ways in which nationalism can find its way into discourse surrounding topics ranging from epidemiology to disasters both natural and distinctly manmade.

Although it feels like a lifetime ago, prior to the rapid global spread of COVID the story of 2020 seemed destined to be defined by the catastrophic Australian wildfires that ravaged the outback. Only months later, amidst the very worst of the pandemic, California was hit by the worst fires the state had seen in a generation. These fires and the responses to them have inspired this month's question, as we ask:

What is the relationship between nationalism and environmentalism or ecologism?How has the mainstreaming of ecologism over the last twenty years affected nationalist discourse, and how has nationalism impacted upon the environmentalist movement? What do the responses of national governments to environmental disasters tell us aboout the relationship between nationalism and environmentalism or ecology? Finally, as we are seeing self-annointed eco-fascist groups emerge both in Europe and the United States, what does the future of the intersection between extreme nationalisms (racist psuedo-nationalisms included) and radical ecologism look like?

As always we eagerly anticipate your responses on this timely and interesting question. Please spread the QOTM far and wide, and we encourage you to introduce your students to the series if this question is of relevance to your class. 

Best wishes,

Simon Purdue -- Network Editor

A comment from Dr. Daniele Conversi:

The relationship between nationalism and environmentalism/ecologism (the two shouldn’t be conflated) is a fascinating one – and one that indeed needs to be explored in detail. Thank you for posing it.

As currently framed, the question needs first to be contextualised. Perhaps it should be divided into three main historically grounded sub-questions:

Is the relationship between environmentalism/ecologism and nationalism intrinsically leftist?

Ever since their very foundation, European Green parties have been strongly and clearly associated with the Left, although nothing seems to prevent the Right from adopting environmental agendas. Green parties across the world overwhelmingly situate themselves on the Left of the political spectrum and their major founding figures, such as Daniel Cohn-Bendit (b. 1945), Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997) and Alexander Langer (1946-1995), have espoused intrinsically pluralist, secular, liberal agendas concerned with social injustice and inclusionary politics -- all features generally attributed to the Left. The Left itself is a broad umbrella whose contours I have already identified in a previous H-Nationalism blog (also see the related contribution in a recent handbook edited by Liah Greenfeld and Zeying Wu).

Nearly all the Green movements have strong labour, leftist, and liberal credentials. Such a relationship has recently become more and more robust as organized climate change denial has exclusively remained a prerogative of the right – both the far-right and, at least in the USA, the neo-Conservative right.

Moreover, the latter two are largely anti-science to the point that many of their voters and followers do not consider scientific evidence as more important than nationalist bombast or biblical injunctions (as clearly revealed in the USA with the denial of medical science during the COVID pandemic).

Finally, in regard to immigration and citizenship, Green Parties in Europe have unconditionally embraced human rights and adopted inclusive citizenship policies. If Green parties are still the standard bearers of ecology, then the answer to the first question is affirmative. But, as I said, nothing precludes the right from adopting an ecological position, even though it is notoriously tied to big industry.

Is there an environmental complement within Fascism, beside its nationalist ultramodernism?

We should here look back at the history of the past century. Since its earlier manifestations (predating the October 1922 March on Rome), Fascism was a combination of various ideologies, chiefly bourgeois nationalism and socialism, with atheist and anarchist (or at least anarcho-syndicalist) veneers. Indeed, a strong futurist ultra-modernist element often prevailed – a connection also explored in a recent book by Thorsten Botz-Bornstein. The centrality of modernism in Fascism has been most famously analysed by Emilio Gentile, Roger Griffin and several other historians.

Regarding its attitude towards the environment, it was mostly in the sense of mastering space and "reclaiming the land" through giant infrastructure building and mega-engineering projects: industrial development usually took precedence over environmental protection, even though the first national parks in Italy were established under fascism. This can hardly be considered an ecological inclination.

Similarly, it wouldn't be surprising to find elements of socialism, anti-capitalism, welfare statism, as well as environmentalism and Green rhetoric in contemporary far-right parties. I think this wouldn't be too different from the usual "greenwashing" of big business trying to market their latest products to an increasingly green conscious and environmentally sensitive public.

Some scholars may be tempted to confuse rhetoric with facts, but there is not a shred of evidence for the right's factual commitment to much-needed energy reforms and environmental change born out of the current ecological emergency. Let's not forget that ecology was initially (and still is) a science, rather than an ideology. The mere presupposition that there may exist something called "eco-fascism" is not grounded in historical research on fascist politics -- the latter should simply highlight the creation of a new oxymoron.

Was Romantic flirtation with the soil and soul of the nation a kind of environmentalism?

Looking further back in history, further questions arise: Did the Romantic love for the countryside translate into a true commitment to defend specific peasants’ interests, besides the local village and town elites? To what extent, and in which respect, was Romantic nationalism a reaction against the scientific rationalization of nature, similar to the nationalism of contemporary climate change deniers?

Romanticism accompanied vast social change and the depopulation of rural heartlands, with a rapid expansion of crowded urban areas. From 1798 the “land grabbing” of small landholdings on a vast scale and their incorporation into larger farms known as “enclosures” resulted in the displacement of entire families into the industrial cities to provide cheap labour for emerging industries. It is often suggested that these changes after the advent of steam-power coincided with the beginning of climate change. This time was thus not merely the beginning of the modern age but, more importantly, the beginning of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene.

Romanticism was in part also a reaction to the dominant industrialism, perhaps similar to the way far-right populism today can be read as a reaction to globalism.

Both have also been rebellions against the elites, either the old aristocratic classes and their norms or the “globalists” running the world economy today. Both are intrinsically anti-scientific and emotionally rooted in deep irrational behaviours.

However, some scholars, like Bonneuil and Fressoz, argue that there is a continuity between the anti-industrial resistance of some romantic and more contemporary movements for resilience - see particularly chapter 11 on "Resisting the deterioration of the Earth since 1750” (pp. 253–287). I don't know if looking at the past in this way might be at all helpful in understanding or anticipating the coming trends.

Also, if nationalism claims to care about future generations as it does for past generations, it is astonishing that very few nationalist movements have adopted a strong stance on fighting climate change, which is by far the greatest security threat to the survival of every single nation.

And here there is one final question: Will this indifference about future generations (also typical of nationalist practice in times of war – despite the rhetoric) change in some nationalist movements? And which of these movements is more ready to embrace the new challenges of the Anthropocene?

First, please allow expressing my gratitude towards Dr. Daniele Conversi for such insightful and interesting split of the question. And second - my two cents on recent East European/postsocialist perspective of the question.

In the late 1980s, the environmentalism was high on nationalist agenda in many socialist countries, especially in USSR republics of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. Part of that was political reclaiming of "Haimat" with strong romanticism overtones, part - resistance to modernization and industrialization, represented by Communist power, and part - a tactical manoeuvre, allowing social activism under the seemingly neutral banner of ecology. You just cannot state the national agenda in 1986 Soviet Union directly without risking tough repressions. Some environment protection societies constituted the basis for emerging national liberation movements in terms of networks, ideology, and leaders.

After the global neo-liberalism won, the environmental concerns moved into deep background. Now, in the 21st century, the green banner is picked up by the new left - joining the rest of the world.

Dear All, 

Allow me to add a few additional conjectures to this discussion. 

The first pertains to the role of "resource nationalism" in potentially shaping engagement with either ecology or environmentalism. My comment here stems in part from my wondering whether we are not entering into a new era of global economic relations based on a cagey protectionism and a re-entanglement of geopolitical rivalries with trade. Will the United States, for example, at some point return to the politics of the 1990s, when both major parties favored opening economic borders? Or will Trump's trade wars be an inflection point. Are we in the midst of a broader shift towards resoure nationalism--to state-actors turning away from "the West's" post-World War II/Cold War economic order which presumed shared growth through free trade?

If so, I can imagine resource nationalists, including those on the political Right, in many countries having an environmental agenda, at least in cases where environmental change threatens modes of life with rich symbolic meaning and/or where global warming threatens the very existence of a nation, as with island nations and those centered on river deltas. On the former one thinks of the relationship between national iconography, pastrolism, and desertification in many parts of the globe.  But perhaps Daniele's point about nationalists' failure to honor their own implied commitment to intergenerational solidarity is too apt. I can easily imagine a new wave of right-leaning resource nationalists embracing policies that destory the very landscapes the profess to hold dear.  

The second comment is to suggest the value of thinking through the various twists and turns of the ideologies bundled together in the political Right of our time. I don't find it hard to fathom why Christian fundamentalists in the United States are anti-science since they are explicitly devoted to a biblical literalism that has a hard enough time with Copernicus let alone Darwin or Hubble. In other cases the Right's anti-science philosophy strikes me as more mystifying, especially in cases where corporate influence pertains, as many modern businesses stake their image on claims to expertise and innovation. I would be curious to hear whether others thought that the modern political Right was broadly anti-science across the globe, whether that isn't mostly a U.S. thing, or something in between. 

Another angle here is to think about nature's symbolic meaning to the American militia movement, and in particular the deep imprint of the Vietnam War on the latter's imagination (here I'm drawing tangentially from Kathleen Belew's Bring the War Home). American militia men tend to train in and, as best I can tell, see themselves as fighting in the forests, even though it seems obvious that the coming civil war they imagine would necessarily center on cities. The prevalence of camoflage in armed bands of Trump supporters suggests the incongruity between the places they are actually trying to occupy--state buildings and suburban houses--and their tendency to imagine themselves in nature.  

A final line of thought might pertain to the American political Right's idealization of hunting as a manly endeavor. Hunting is of course is its own kind of economic development of the environment, but one that precludes other economic activities that more deeply transform the landscape. 

Best wishes, 

Dave 

Just some scattered reflections as a scrambling finale to an incredible year.

I agree with Toms Kencis’ well-thought comments. Thank you so much for these, which are also useful for the research I am carrying out.

Since our previous thread on climate change in HNationalism (https://networks.h-net.org/node/3911/discussions/4386325/question-month-august), more studies have been published on these issues. As far as I know, my NP article (https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/nationalities-papers/article/abs/ultimate-challeng...) remains the only one that tries to approach climate change from a nationalism studies perspective.

Here, I also covered some of the issues raised by Toms. It is true that environmental struggles in the former Soviet bloc reached their peak in the 1970s and 1980s. Some studies linking late 1980s environmentalism with nationalism in the former USSR are mentioned in the article. For instance, Estonian nationalists played a vital role in establishing the first National Park in the Soviet Union.

If polluting industrialization was embodied by the Communist Party, resistance rapidly vanished once nationalism trumped Communism. I agree that ecologism was largely tactical, as it then appealed to most citizens, but its precipitous end should be subject to further explanation. It is indicative that once it declined it failed to remerge just as environmental damage was spinning out of control. I suspect that nationalism played a crucial role in concealing or silencing other issues (such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, or unsustainability).

The pandemic has highlighted the limits of globalization and the ineffectiveness of nationalism in tackling global problems, but also highlights the emergence, spread and morbidity of zoonotic diseases caused by environmental destruction, urbanisation, biodiversity loss, unprecedented pollution and climate change.