On the Ambiguities of Nationalism

Nationalism has come heavy attack in recent years, mainly through its associations with racism, xenophobia, and other illiberal things which run contrary to our modern multicultural value system. In its current “populist” form it represents a legitimate threat to the interests of wealthy and connected global elites, and they’ve come out hard against it. This is shown in the perpetual barrage of attacks by the “mainstream media” and “establishment politicians” on populist movements around the globe like Brexit, and especially on the the presidency of Donald Trump in the United States.

And yet many of these same elites who so vigorously oppose nationalism now were its biggest champions not so long ago. This is particularly true in the United States. Both Republicans and Democrats alike made frequent emotional appeals to the American populace in support of an ambitious foreign agenda after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

Our “freedom” and democracy were being threatened by the likes of Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden, they warned us, and anyone who didn’t fully support our international military endeavors was branded as unpatriotic, possibly even sympathetic to the terrorists. It was a clever and reasonably convincing ploy: American interests (which Americans?) were tied in with globalization, and those who rejected this vision of American (Western) hegemony – whether inside or outside of the United States – were viewed as enemies of ALL Americans. Of all decent freedom-loving people, actually.

What changed? In short, the specific form and aims of nationalism has undergone a radical transformation. In its previous “imperialist” incarnation it was led by transnational elites who made use of the rhetoric of patriotism – encouraging average people to fight for their country’s interests while greedily outsourcing their jobs – to advance the their individual and class interests. In it’s more current “populist” version, on the other hand, we find the notion that what’s good for a nation’s elites is good for all of its citizens under vigorous challenge.

Those elites who made ready made use of the language of nationalism now lament that strategy. When the masses were soaking it up and eagerly defending what they perceived to be the whole nation’s interests, they were appreciated, encouraged to be enthusiastic patriots even. The opposite is the case now, obviously, as yesterday’s committed patriots are today’s “deplorables” – depicted in popular media as a reactionary and expendable segment of society.

Our economic and cultural elites will gladly replace these deplorables with low-skilled immigrants from less developed countries. And although the traditional political parties have different (but possibly overlapping) motivations for supporting this policy, they largely share this pro-immigrant position. Leftists of the multiculturalism and “identity politics” sort – by way of contrast with the old party of the working classes – enjoy the increased political power that comes with more votes. Fiscal conservatives on the other hand – representing the “haves” and “have mores” as G.W. Bush referred to the Republican base – love the massive influx of cheap labor. Many progressives and even some conservatives genuinely feel for the plight of hardworking immigrants, but let’s not delude ourselves about the less noble underlying (and unspoken) motivations.

One thing is certain here: elites from both parties didn’t care enough about the well-being of normal, hard-working, and law-abiding citizens of their countries to sacrifice some of their own wealth and power for the sake of a greater “common” good. Populism represents a response to this growing awareness of the middle and lower classes, who now see a radical divergence of economic and cultural interests from their political and economic overlords. Fox News and Breitbart are clearly biased news sources who exploit this populist resentment for their own financial gain, but they did not create this scenario.

As mentioned, transnational elites are clever at concealing their selfishness and narrowness of vision under the guise of noble intentions. They portray those who don’t go along with their narrative in the most uncharitable terms imaginable: as ungrateful, unpatriotic, racist, etc. This strategy has even taken on a dubious religious quality recently, with attacks on Trump and his supporters being framed in terms that resonate on a spiritual level; they are not just wrong, but evil and hateful. If you’re not with us (the compassionate and intelligent ones) then you’re with them! This attempt to control the thoughts and emotions of people, to get them to conform to your vision of the world, is just one danger to human dignity represented by enthusiastic advocates of globalization.

It’s gets worse. Many involved in the “resistance” make no attempt to hide their wish that so-called “deplorables” will die off as quickly as possible. Once this reactionary element is effaced from history, “progress” towards a globalized consumer civilization can begin with even greater enthusiasm. Of course it’s not pitched in those exact terms , but this is precisely what it represents: the world of Nietzsche’s Last Man. How can any decent human being not be excited about the prospects of a technologically-advanced world run by scientific experts, university elites (coming at it from the cultural angle), and bureaucrats? How could a thoughtful, reasonable human being have reservations about any of this? Show us this Last Man, Zarathustra!!

It’s an interesting (and sad) spectacle to observe that even many of the old anti-establishment Leftists – influenced by the likes of Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky – longing for the good old days, when globalization was pushing forward at breakneck speed under the wise and benevolent leadership of Bill Clinton, G.W. Bush, and especially Barack Obama. Obama, with his racial heritage and polished rhetoric, made globalization a successful brand even after the economic crisis of 2008. These Leftists used to be cynical about imperialism, militarism, cultural homogenization, consumerism, and a myriad of additional ills they associated with global capitalism. But now, in large part out of pure hatred for Donald Trump and all they feel he stands for (and there’s no way for them to dissociate these things), they’re some of its most enthusiastic supporters.

We should think through these issues in greater detail. I would say, provisionally, that nationalism is an ambiguous phenomena: In its populist form it can easily degenerate into the sort of fascism and authoritarianism it’s often linked with. However, it can also serve as a bulwark against an aggressive, one-dimensional internationalism predicated on reducing all peoples and things to potential consumers and resources. Authentic individual and communal freedom – beyond the “freedom” of consumerism and its correlate, hedonism – is incompatible with the goals of unchecked economic globalization.

Under genuinely wise leadership, however, a temporary defensive nationalism may not be such a horrible thing. It can be used as a means of preserving (or even articulating anew) a people’s unique history, culture, and values. These are worth preserving in some cases. And instinctively rejecting nationalism, or necessarily associating it with its worst aspects, is just as mindless as embracing it without reservations.

In coming weeks and months this topic will be investigated more thoroughly in light of its current significance. How do we articulate a forward-looking alternative to globalization? One that sincerely respects the dignity and value of distinct peoples and communities? Not one that claims to respect only superficial features  of national cultures – food, clothing, etc – while seeking to impose a deeper universal ontological structure on them indiscriminately under the demands of the global marketplace (Heidegger’s “Enframing”). One that consciously strives, moreover, to leave that essential ontological plurality intact while cultivating good will rather than animosity among the world’s peoples.

This should not be taken as a defense of Brexit or Trump, or of an enthusiasm for populism considered without qualification. What it is is a call to think through our collective historical situation in all its complexity, and to search for ways of appreciating/appropriating the many achievements of globalization while also ameliorating its undeniable weaknesses. Nationalism can be an extremely violent and dangerous movement, but it may also harbor potentially emancipatory aspects. These positive elements must be sharply demarcated from its aggressively racist and authoritarian variants. Despite what elites would have us think,  these are not sine qua nons of populist nationalism; they’re dangerous possibilities we must guard against but not essential features. .

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