Here’s to my countrymen, wherever they happen to hail from!
—Wojciech Chojnicki, in Joseph Roth’s The Emperor’s Tomb
A generation ago, when Benedict Anderson was asked on Dutch television what country he would be prepared to die for, he hung his head in silence. “It would depend very much on the circumstances,” he finally said. A leading left thinker about nationalism in his generation, Anderson was born into an Anglo-Irish family in the collapsing Republic of China, and raised in the Republic of Ireland and the United States, where he made his academic career. He devoted much of his life to studying Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where he died in 2015. He was not a provincial person. Yet the credo of post-nationalism ascendant in the 1990s found no place in his affections. For Anderson, the force of nationalism was not a dark phantom. Like other domains that sometimes seem to be exclusive property of the right—the market, the military—the “nation” was ideological terrain that could be harvested for high and low ends. Drafted into a Bush war in the Middle East, Anderson would have been on the first plane to Canada, but called up for the Indonesian War of Independence against the Dutch, or for the Easter Rising against the British, it would not have been hard to imagine him taking up position.
What is the idea of the nation for? It depends, as Anderson said. Over the centuries nationalism has swung back and forth as a progressive and retrograde force, depending on historical conditions. In revolutionary France the “nation” started as a wrecking ball against feudalism and the church. Before the “nation” became defined by its limit of concern, it appeared to the Old Regime as terrifying in its limitlessness. Before the “nation” could be for anyone it had to be against specific someones: kings, priests and their enablers. Nationalism became a forest fire of fraternity that Napoleon wanted to control-burn through Europe in order to make fertile ground for the imposition of his uniform Code. Hegel believed this was a great leap for the world, but also witnessed its reversals: the way the Napoleonic armies provoked crude nationalist backlashes. He mocked the nationalist students around him determined to throw off the French yoke: “Liberation? Liberation from what? … If I ever see one liberated person with my own eyes, I shall fall to the ground and prostrate myself before him.”
Despite later attempts to tar them as proto-totalitarians, the major early theorists of the “nation” were hardly blinkered chauvinists. (A telling slur, named for the apocryphal gung-ho soldier Nicolas Chauvin in Napoleon’s Grande Armée, the meaning of chauvinism evolved from indicating excessive national excitement to a more spiteful and hate-prone temperament.) Johann Gottfried Herder spoke of a cosmopolitan world of nations because he was worried that any attempt to iron out cultural difference between peoples would result in violent extinctions (though he didn’t seem to anticipate that nationalism itself would become the bulldozer of his beloved regional dialects). His idea of the Volksgeist as the unique spiritual endowment of each people would be appropriated in different ways by his successors. For Hegel’s contemporary, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, it was a genetic inheritance whose spurning meant cultural suicide; for others, like Hegel himself, it was the outcome of a state’s legal, political and cultural forces, not the cause. Giuseppe Mazzini, the most dogged nineteenth-century promoter of nationalism, believed nations had no pasts, only futures: they were collective stabs by peoples to engrave their aspirations in constitutions. “We have made Italy,” Massimo d’Azeglio famously declared. “Now we must make Italians.” For d’Azeglio, Mazzini and more earthy nationalists like Garibaldi, there was no sharp distinction between nationalism and internationalism: the two agendas shared a common universal aspiration. Garibaldi himself spread nationalism in Latin America, was invited by Lincoln to command the Union Army and served in three different national assemblies. In his eyes, the nationalist and the internationalist were mutually dependent.
Early modern European states owed their organization to their purpose as war-fighting machines that only became more effective as they transitioned into “nation-states.” Literacy was necessary so citizens could, among other things, read their orders for conscription. The widespread consumption of newspapers especially—Hegel thought they were replacing morning prayer—was, as Anderson observed, critical to nurturing the abstract imagination needed for large-scale national mobilizations, the sort that required feeling for people you had never met, may never meet. In this way, the “nation” could become an object of wonder dreamed of in circumstances of deprivation and horror. The animating motive of most Union Army infantrymen in the Civil War was not to free the slaves but to avenge their Confederate brothers’ violation of the sacred national bond; Union Army privates spoke of the “nation” like a woman whose “integrity” they wanted at all costs to preserve. That young men would move from small towns in Maine to die on fields in Georgia for such figurative bodies is hardly extraordinary: in our own time, young men and women have moved out of Parisian banlieues to die in Syria on behalf of the considerably more abstract ideal of a revived caliphate.
By the late nineteenth century, aristocratic elites had reconciled themselves to national units—especially after figures like Bismarck had proved that nationalism could be comfortably reconciled with illiberalism. The old elites involved in running modern European states worked together with the new industrialist business class to crush restive workers at home and police colonized peoples abroad. Most importantly, as Arno Mayer has shown, the alliance between the Old Regime and the industrialists discovered the great value of nationalism as a bludgeon against the threat of international cooperation. They had been greatly troubled by the predominant type of internationalist in the nineteenth century: the artisans who, to a large extent, determined their own working hours and moved freely around Europe, forming associations and plotting reform and revolution. As the industrial revolution accelerated, however, the majority of European workers became less mobile, had less control over their production and were more susceptible to narrower understandings of the “nation.”
This understanding proved exceptionally durable. Even after self-declared nations ignited the First World War, helping to shatter the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, the idea of the “nation” was still seen by many progressives as such an undeniable reality that the first celebrity president in world history, Woodrow Wilson, envisioned himself as a magnanimous matchmaker, determining with his scientific staff which nations deserved states and which did not. Americans believed that nation-states, as these arrangements came to be known, were the best hosts for humanity’s destined future.
For most of its life as an idea, anti-nationalism has been located on the left, which has mostly come to agree with the right that nationalism belongs among the arsenal of reaction. Some of the socialists and communists who emerged from the First World War and the collapse of czarism looked down on the parochialism of nationalists, even as they recognized the mobilizing power of their ideas. With the arguable exception of Liberia, the Soviet Union was the first modern state to make no reference to any national or ethnic connection in its name. But as much as Lenin and Stalin believed in transcending the nation-state, they did not see it happening anytime soon. The young Soviet state was therefore rife with debates and confusion about what to do about “nationalism,” which, as Yuri Slezkine has shown, was both a weapon too useful to be ignored when it came to accelerating the historical trajectories of non-Russian peoples within its borders, and also a danger to the supremacy of “Russians,” the dominant identity of the USSR. Something resembling Herder’s cosmopolitan-nativist synthesis was, if not realized, at least attempted by the Soviets: the cross-translation of epic dramas across linguistic barriers, so that each Soviet people could become familiar with each other’s cultural wellsprings, and enjoy, say, a Georgian epic translated into Bashkir. One of the bitter ironies of the Soviet variant of socialism in this period is that its partisans had been reduced to believing that it had to begin “in one country.” This fitting of a matrix of Soviet nationalisms under the tent of internationalism structured a communist world imaginary that, while nominally equal, in fact behaved like a tributary system with smaller communist states around the world all heeding the USSR, at pain of receiving its tanks in their capitals.
If Moscow’s plan to harness the power of nationalism on behalf of world communism was already threatening to the West, the “new nations” of the decolonizing world only added more trouble: believing the only way to avoid predation in a capitalist world was to jealously guard their economic sovereignty—to direct the chaotic energy of independence into making Algerians, Ghanaians and Vietnamese. But while they managed some stupendous achievements—who could have imagined that Indonesia could get eighteen thousand disparate islands all speaking the same language within a decade?—their cohesion was weaker than it appeared. When Israeli soldiers interrogated Egyptian soldiers during the Suez Crisis of 1956, they were surprised to learn that their captives had barely a glimmer of what “Egypt” was. They identified with their villages, not their nation. U.S. soldiers discovered the same among Laotian villagers in the following decade, and several nation-states today—India, Myanmar, the Philippines—include large numbers of people who resist any imposition of national identity.
One of the signs of a healthy nation-state is the freedom of its beneficiaries to denounce the nationalism that helped bring it into being. In postwar Western Europe, schoolchildren learned to associate nationalism with the mass death at Verdun, with the evils of fascism and the violence of decolonization. At the same time, everyone today makes some use of the conceits of nationalism on a daily basis. Perhaps the most stringent scholar of contemporary nationalism, Rogers Brubaker, once wrote an article titled “Ethnicity without Groups” that challenged his fellow scholars not to submit to the artificial labels of ethnicity and nation. But to do this in practice is surpassingly difficult, as you start to formulate sentences like this: “Yesterday the president of the people who have been variously framed and constructed as ‘Americans’ met with a king of a group of people who through colonial censuses and the imposition of various dubious European categories have come to be known as ‘Malaysian.’”
“Internationalism” as a normative principle, on the other hand, has fared differently. As Perry Anderson, brother of Benedict, has shown, it is mutually revealing to compare and contrast the fortunes of nationalism and internationalism as organizing concepts across time. With the collapse of the Communist bloc impairing any lingering claim on the left to “internationalism,” the “international community” became the new favored idiom of Western capitalist liberalism of the 1990s. Though aligned with U.S. power and interests, this “internationalism” referred to something very real. International finance had experts in every state who worked to make capital flows more fluid between them. In the capitals of the former Third World, the key figures in development were central bankers and economists. Even in Hanoi, at one time the place most hostile to U.S.-led global capitalism, it was a student of the Harvard neo-Keynesian economist Paul Samuelson who took the reins of the national economy in the 1980s. The American commentariat could never quite settle on a brand name for the process of a world being made safe for capital, but the euphemisms remain a telling catalog of inflections: there was the “American Century” of Henry Luce, the “Free World” of Kennedy, the “New World Order” of Bush the Elder, the “Globalization” of Clinton, the “Liberal International Order” of Obama.
And what about those self-proclaimed truce-makers between the right and the left, the liberal nationalists? Every decade a lonely liberal nationalist writes a large book that says the same thing: We are not yet ready as a species for international solidarity, nor even for baby steps like Habermas’s vision of “constitutional patriotism,” which defines citizenship on the basis of allegiance to abstract liberal ideals rather than shared history or social affinities. We—Americans, Israelis, the French—are separate peoples, bound by particular historical experiences, and we should not fool ourselves into thinking that national borders can be transcended. We should not fool ourselves that supranational political authority is desirable, much less practicable. To lose hold of this insight, they insist, is to forfeit a hard-won inheritance to the forces of the nationalist right.
Liberal-nationalist authors flatter their liberal readership by finding the solution to their accelerating sense of dislocation in the attic of their own tradition. They are bound together by the determination to reconcile a putative need for historical belonging with tolerance. If the cultural needs of a particular minority are very great indeed, then that people—Palestinians, Kurds, Rakhine, Kosovars—may have a legitimate claim to their own territory. But there’s an impatience, too, that characterizes liberal nationalists: you cannot play the game of Russian dolls forever, they seem to say.
What they do not say is that the United States will reserve the ultimate decision of whether your application for territory is approved. Perhaps the most dramatic failed “liberal nationalist” project of the nineteenth century was the Confederate States of America, whose leaders believed they were operating not only within the legal writ of the U.S. Constitution but also with the Mazzinian zeitgeist at their backs. The content of their cause—the maintenance and expansion of slavery—hardly impinged on their procedural liberal right to political self-determination. But as both the Confederates and Native Americans learned, rights to nationhood, no matter how enshrined in law, can always be revoked by the power that issued them.
Even if a truly tolerant brand of liberal nationalism could be imagined, it would be the equivalent of a horse and wagon on the Autobahn of global capitalism. An ideology cobbled together in the mid-nineteenth century yields poor results when confronted with 21st-century neoliberalism. A squadron of $150 million F-22 Raptors flies over a football stadium, or a regiment performs its goose-step change of guard at the border, liberal nationalists recommend protest: Why don’t we build more national parks with that money instead? National ideology, they believe, can be channeled to whatever ends the national public chooses. But nothing in the treasure chest of liberal nationalism encourages such social instincts, which is why its ideology of legalism and proceduralism has long been so attractive to elites who already have power.
The coronavirus has only made the alignment between nationalism and a certain sector of the financial elite that much clearer. There are audible sighs of irritation that the nation-state—so long a faithful partner in subduing labor unrest and bailing out one strategic corporate bankruptcy after another—now has to be mobilized to keep consumers and some workers alive. In the face of the virus, national elites have not so much mobilized narratives of the nation as indulged a series of nationalist tantrums. Some medical and social workers have effectively been asked to sacrifice their lives for their neighbors or their communities, while national governments try to keep a respectable number of their subjects from dying, or at least try to signal that they are doing so. “Best practices” have been dictated by the strong states of East Asia, New Zealand and Portugal, while other national governments around the world wager their legitimacy if they disobey them. As the world economy, travel and many people’s personal lives enter stasis, prognostications of Armageddon and salvation have proliferated.
To one side, there are scenarios out of Saramago: civil wars, war-casualty-style triage, enhanced state surveillance, corporate profiteering and the culling of the most vulnerable in society, whether from sickness or from having been blocked from their daily scavenging for survival. Cardboard coffins in Quito, shoot-to-kill orders for curfew breakers in Manila, royal-clogged hospitals in Riyadh, uncollected surrogacy babies in Kiev, Romanian migrants flown in to pick asparagus to satisfy German palates: choose your image of depravity or terror. To the other side, COVID-19 figures like a hyper-fueled version of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. A better world beckons of corona-bonds, pharma-profit taxes, digital organizing, state-determined production of value, reinvigorated international health organizations. Health is the war of the state! The only thing that seems clear is that both nationalism and its alleged opposite, internationalism, have, if not intensified, become more spectacular. International media has fixated on the competition for national prestige. The vicious fight between countries for face masks exposed the fallacy of the view that global challenges like pandemics—or climate change—can be solved within a primarily nationalist framework. Simultaneously, there were scenes that could have been spliced back into old black-and-white newsreels trumpeting Third Worldist solidarity: Cuban and Chinese doctors in crisp white coats descending jet stairways to help comrades in… Italy.
It may be true that pandemics of the past helped bring down regimes, ideologies and empires. John McNeill attributed some of the reasons for Christianity’s triumph over Roman paganism and stoicism to the ingrained sense of duty among Christians in the early centuries to care for the sick during epidemics—which amid the collapse of Roman institutions could make quite a difference—and to their comforting faith that a release from suffering was to be welcomed. The world is nowhere near the level of perspectival implosions of the third century CE. And the coronavirus crisis has not yet presented any obvious winner of the contest of which regime type or ideological constellation fares best in the face of global pandemics: liberal capitalist democracies have both done better and worse than authoritarian market states in the face of COVID-19.
The intractable problem for thinking beyond the nation-state is that its imputed obsolescence can neither be easily forced nor messianically awaited. As Benedict Anderson said, “It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” In a world order saturated with risk, is it any wonder that very few can do without that magic? To come to power in any given nation-state today is not possible without speaking some idiom of nationalism. The first internationalist-nationalists were right to remain fluent in both registers. Viewed coldly, the “nation” today is less something to be wished away than a needle that needs to be threaded in order for a less bad future to have a chance.
Art credit: Sam Durant, courtesy of the artist and Blum & Poe.
This essay is part of our new issue 22 symposium, “What are nation-states for?” Subscribe now with the code NATION for 25% off to receive issue 22 and two more issues of The Point.