“It may sound trite to say so, but the national state is the worst way of arranging and governing human societies, apart from all the others.”
Nationalism is a dirty word, conjuring images of bigotry and exclusion. Nationalism, like anything in extreme doses, is poisonous. However, the absence of the national state is arguably equally lethal. I’d like to defend the concept of the nation in this essay. I will look at the history of the nation, and why this might suggest that we should not wish to hasten the nation’s demise. I hope to show, and to perhaps convince the reader, that if nothing else, the nation is the worst way of organizing society, apart from all the others. While we should not lift up the nation as an object of worship, we should not denigrate it either. We should, I would argue, show gratitude for what the nation can provide. Gratitude is the driving motivation of this essay.
The national state is a relatively recent innovation in the long span of human history. As Yoram Hazony argued in his book The Virtue of Nationalism, for most of our history humans lived in hunter-gatherer groups, which then grew to clans, and then tribes. According to Hazony, for most of history, human society was either tribal or imperial. For Pierre Manent meanwhile, it was the city-state and the empire. The earliest one can say that anything like the national state emerged was in the medieval period in England and France. Fast forward to 1648 and the Treaty of Westphalia, the treaty that ended the Thirty Years War and widely held to signal the birth of the national state system in Europe. This history is an influence on how I view the national state in an instrumental way. Despite my profound disagreement with Hobbes’s conception of the individual, his views of the unshackled human nature and its propensity towards chaos and carnage have been born out by history, most especially the period leading up to the treaty of 1648. If it were not for the stability, law, and order that the nation state provides, our fundamentally flawed human natures would lead to our lives being “nasty, brutish and short.”
However, in the post-medieval era, the human murder rate among has fallen to 1.3%. It is interesting that this coincides with the rise of the national state
While it is, as usual, important not to confuse correlation and causation, there are some interesting facts related to the history above. Spanish scientists have found that among primates, 2% of deaths are murders. They then found the same murder rate from human archaeological records up to 10,000 years ago, when it rose slightly with increased contact between groups of humans. However, in the post-medieval era, the human murder rate among has fallen to 1.3%. It is interesting that this coincides with the rise of the national state, with its strengthened capacity for imposing law and order on a chaotic European continent through its monopoly over the use of violence. This point is further made by the fact that in countries where peace and the rule of law prevail (something found only in strong national states), the murder rate is under 0.02%. In the medieval period, lawless bands of brigands, mercenaries, and feudal armies were roving across Europe killing each other. With the inception of the nation state following the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, rates of violence began to fall.
From the end of World War II, the idea of nations, at least in the West, came under attack. As Hazony argues, this followed a serious misconception of what caused the war. Many on both sides of the political spectrum held that Nazism was a form of extreme nationalism; so, because the Nazis caused the war, the war was the fault of nationalism as such, and so the nation itself was a unique driver of violence that had caused the worst conflict in history. Except Hitler wasn’t a nationalist, as he hated the national state because of the constraints it placed on his ambitions, and instead wanted to create a racial empire, taking twisted inspiration from the Holy Roman Empire. Hence, the Third Reich. It never seems to occur to people who hold to this mistaken view of history that weakening or dismantling the national state might not perhaps be such a good idea, because while nations have of course been responsible for violence they might also act as a guard against it. But, then again that would require our political and intellectual class to actually have a grasp of history before 1989 or 1945. If they did, they might be more hesitant. Instead, the answer to all our woes is less sovereignty, less national representation, and weaker nations.
This is the argument Natan Sharansky makes in his book Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, concerning the European Union (EU). According to him, the EU would prefer that those who live on the continent just gave up their national attachments entirely. As the EU federalists see it, the best way to give their project legitimacy is for people’s ties to their nations and their national identity to weaken, and to redirect their loyalties to the EU itself. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick Deneen describes how liberalism leads to the removal of the communal institutions that stand between the individual and the state. Once freed from these constraints, the individual has to rely on the state to ensure his continued freedom. This leads to the atomized individual who is bound to, but lives in fear of, the state Leviathan. This arguably captures what the EU is seeking to do with the national state: it wants to remove the prejudicial and exclusionary idea of the nation. But, in doing so, it appears to be attempting to remove constraints on populations that engender civility, while at the same time promoting the left-wing identity politics of division and oppression. No wonder that a reactionary postmodern conservatism has arisen in response. This, as Arthur Milikh argues, is encouraging a ‘re-barbarization’ of the European continent.
The nation, as a system of government, has provided the order and stability through its monopoly on force that has allowed us to enjoy the benefits of our civilization, among them the rule of law and liberty, that our ancestors left to us.
As I’ve said before, “liberty must partner with order at the societal and individual level. … Freedom needs boundaries, borders and restraints within which to function in a beneficial way.” Without these solid foundations upon which liberty is built, we are left thrashing in an infinite sea of choice, drowning. This liquid modernity, as Zygmunt Bauman calls it, leads only to misery and nihilism. As a counter to this, Sharansky argues that the identity people gain from their feelings of national attachment gives them something to stand on. It provides something to live for, giving us a connection to the world beyond ourselves. This allows us to see that we are part of something greater, and adds layers of meaning to our lives. This connection not only provides a link between fellow citizens, but stems from the chain of being that binds the generations together. It brings to life a sentiment of solidarity between the living, and an obligation to those who are dead and to those who are still to be born. Instead of the weak atomized individual of Deneen’s book, Sharansky’s conception of identity strengthens the individual, who is linked to other individuals through a common sense of purpose. This gives a sense of a communal self, of what Roger Scruton calls a singular “we.”
As I said at the beginning, the nation should not be worshipped. That is a danger that we should be on guard against. However, it should also not be denigrated beyond reason. The nation, as a system of government, has provided the order and stability through its monopoly on force that has allowed us to enjoy the benefits of our civilization, among them the rule of law and liberty, that our ancestors left to us. We should not be complacent about past crimes, but we should also have a sense of perspective based in a knowledge of the flaws of human nature and the breadth of human history. It may sound trite to say so, but the national state is the worst way of arranging and governing human societies, apart from all the others. It is, I would argue, the best we’ve found. And we should be thankful for it.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.