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The Failure of Nations: A Reply to Henry George

“So claiming that the Nazi’s nationalism and imperialism were exceptional strikes me as untrue. Almost all of the modern nation-states held up as examples made exceptions of Westphalian principles for themselves, often invoking national glory or superiority as an excuse.”


I greatly enjoyed Henry George’s recent piece in Merion West, “The Need for Nations,” which I think ranks with his piece on Arendt as among his finest for this outlet. His recent article is the culmination of a series of pieces which defend nationalism against its critics while trying to diagnose the problems of modernity. I have empathized with parts of this project, such as his reading of Arendt on loneliness. Others, such as his reading of the seminal discursive theorist Edward Said, I found more problematic. But George is always engaging and thoughtful, and he and I decided to engage in this exchange to try and better frame the debate between those who support nationalism and those who are critical of it and argue for the internationalist project.

In this article, I am going to point out where I think George makes some relevant points for the nationalist position. However, I will devote most of my time to demonstrating why I think some of his arguments are either more problematic or ultimately untenable. I will conclude by briefly rehashing the argument I made in my four part series “The Case for Humanity” that internationalism is a viable and desirable project.

The Case for Nationalism

George makes several intertwined arguments for why the nation-state should be the preferred form of political organization. I am extrapolating these positions from the text of his article and will discuss each in turn in the section below.

1: Human Nature Tends Towards Violence and Chaos

Like many on the political right, George is a qualified pessimist about human nature. At the start of his article, he stipulates that despite finding Hobbesian individualism unconvincing, he shares the cautious Englishman’s dark interpretation of unbridled human nature.

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.’”

This naturally inclines George to believe that the nation-state which emerged during the time when Hobbes wrote served a valuable function in preserving “stability, law, and order.” He then goes on to observe that in the post-Medieval era, the murder rate across Europe declined substantially. George admits that correlation and causation can be difficult to determine on such complex issues, but he suggests that the formation of the nation-state may at least be partially responsible for curbing some of the worst human instincts found in the state of nature and pre-modern societies.

2: Nationalism Gets a Bad Rap

The next argument George makes is that nationalism has had a bad reputation since the Second World War. Following the argument of Yoram Hazony (whose excellent book The Virtue of Nationalism I reviewed and criticized elsewhere) very closely, George makes the claim that this is largely because the Nazis are condemned as a nationalist movement. George maintains, as Hazony did, that this is a mistake. The Nazis, in fact, wanted to create an international German empire which would span the continent, thus allowing them to subjugate all peoples they considered inferior. He then implies that nation-states were a check to these imperial ambitions, a “guard against” forces like Nazism that seek to impose their way of life on others. George’s point in these observations is that those who forget this particular interpretation of history are doomed to repeat it. A more cautious appreciation for the historical virtues of the nation-state in defending against mass violence might encourage internationalist to be less eager to undermine “sovereignty.”

3: Liberal Individualism Is Less Fulfilling Than Nationalist Solidarity

The last argument George makes is, I think, the strongest. He follows Patrick Deneen and Roger Scruton in arguing that liberal individualism, such as that promoted by the European Union and other internationalists, seeks to remove the constraints which bind peoples together and make them civil. For instance, various forms of traditionalism associated with religion and national identity provide individuals with a sense of meaning beyond themselves—but also put prudent restraints on an individual’s power and agency. When we come to desire the removal of all such constraints on that power and agency, we can only turn to the state—the Leviathan in Hobbes’ memorable phrase—to remove that which stands in the way. According to George, the result can only be a politics of division and nihilistic social dissolution. This is well expressed by George, and I will quote him at length here:  

“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.’”

George himself concedes that there is little that is natural and pre-social about a sense of national identity. The idea of the nation emerged around the 17th century, after human beings had organized themselves in various ways for millennia.

The Case Against Nationalism

George’s argument for the nation-state brings to mind Russell Kirk’s well taken observation in The Conservative Mind that the difference between progressives and conservatives is the former ask, “What exists?”, and the latter ask, “What does this mean?” One of the most salient criticisms of the nation-state in recent years has come from those who point out its historical contingency and ongoing artificiality. They point out that the idea of the nation-state emerged in a specific historical setting and persists as part of a collective “social imaginary” that is maintained through the application of state power and other ideological institutions. The nation-state is, in Benedict Anderson’s memorable phrase, “an imagined” community. This has led many, from Kant onwards, to dismiss it as an illusion befitting an immature people. Since the nation does not truly “exist,” there is no reason we cannot do without it. If one can argue persuasively that a better system is possible, we would be wise to move in that direction.

George himself concedes that there is little that is natural and pre-social about a sense of national identity. The idea of the nation emerged around the 17th century, after human beings had organized themselves in various ways for millennia. But for all the reasons highlighted above, he believes that it is the “best” way of “arranging and governing human societies” we have yet found. A prudent individual, recognizing the human capacity for violence and division in the absence of social cohesion, would recognize that whether the nation-state must exist as a matter of material and historical fact is a secondary question. What matters is what it “means” to many of us, which is a stable society where we can enjoy a scheme of ordered liberties consistent with other national citizens.

In the remainder of this section I will highlight why I do not find George’s three arguments for nationalism entirely or mostly persuasive:

1: George follows Hobbes in regarding human nature as prone to violence and chaos and, in the absence of social cohesion, our lives will be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” This is never directly stated, but one assumes George is positioning himself against more utopian thinkers who believe it is possible to establish a world where these tendencies no longer exist. The point is key, because I am not sure which internationalist actually maintains that human nature is naturally beneficent. Certainly none of the founding figures of the United Nations or the European Union, who established these institutions largely to prevent a global conflict, were under any illusions about the human capacity for violence. Indeed, they were first and foremost concerned that the emphasis on particular group identities generated by extreme nationalism provided a prompt or outlet for these violent tendencies. Their argument was that the Hobbesian project of subjecting human beings to law was insufficient, since the “warre of all against all” simply persisted at the international level as nations competed for resources and power.

So, what was needed was the establishment of a legal order which could curb the worst excesses of state power, including against their own citizens or subjects. Now George might argue that this supra-Leviathan is more terrifying than even Hobbes, but then he has to give an argument as to why sovereign control of individuals is permissible and admirable at the state level, while constraints on state violence are not. This is where his second argument comes in, concerning the need to reinterpret history.

2: George follows Hazony in arguing that the Second World War has given nationalism a bad rap because it has become indelibly associated with the crimes of the Nazis. He maintains that this is mistaken since the Nazis were not true nationalists, seeking instead to create a pan-European empire where they ruled over many peoples. To some extent this is accurate, but this is where the rub is. The Nazis were inspired by all the other European nation-states, who justified massive imperial projects abroad while occasionally preaching Westphalianism at home. Since George follows Hazony here, I will point out again that all of the “nation-states” The Virtue of Nationalism point to as exemplars were hardly disinterested in imperial projects. The United Kingdom (the name itself is telling) engaged in colonial projects within Europe against the Irish. The French and the Dutch had massive overseas empires, often characterized by extreme brutality in enforcing superior French or Dutch culture at the expense of local traditions.

The only kind of internationalist projects which were to be permissible were those such as the European Union, which were established through the consent of the various member states.

And of course Israel remains as highly controversial state to this day due to the competition between its ongoing nation-building project and those of the Palestinians under its jurisdiction.  So claiming that the Nazi’s nationalism and imperialism were exceptional strikes me as untrue. Almost all of the modern nation-states held up as examples made exceptions of Westphalian principles for themselves, often invoking national glory or superiority as an excuse. One of the points in establishing an international legal order that codified the laws of war was to forever chasten these imperial ambitions. The only kind of internationalist projects which were to be permissible were those such as the European Union, which were established through the consent of the various member states. Now what constitutes consent is obviously problematic and subject to ongoing political controversy. But there is no doubt that France, Spain, Belgium, and such consented to joining the European Union in a more authentic manner than the peoples in what are now Vietnam, Mexico, and the Congo consented to being subject to the modernizing Western nations.

3: George’s last point is by far his most persuasive. He might argue that, even granting some of my above points, human beings still thrive more thoroughly in solidaristic societies with a shared sense of identity—the “we” as opposed to the isolated “I.” George could then go on to claim that this sense of solidarity is still best established and maintained in a nation-state—or at least that no other form of social organization has yet been established which can generate these sentiments. And indeed, he points to my own argument about the rise of postmodern conservatism as an example of what happens when internationalist individualism gains too much of a sway and destroys this sense of solidarity.

I think there is a great deal to this point, and it is in many ways a key intellectual problem for progressive internationalists such as myself. The Left has been highly concerned with the issue of including all social groups within liberal institutions, part of the ongoing project of “political liberalism” so well discussed by Rawls and Nussbaum. While many leftists are critical of many aspects of liberalism, the central belief that protection and recognition of individual identity is key remains common. Such individualism may be emancipatory, but it may lack the sense of solidarity found in illiberal societies, generating a sense of what Weber calls “disenchantment” with the world as older forces such as religion decline.  

My argument would be, following Benhabib, Nussbaum, and others, that there is an answer to this. It lies in creating a far more democratic community than has yet been seen in many liberal democracies, allowing citizens a great deal of control and participation in creating the political forms and laws which govern them. It would also mean recognizing that individualism is not realized in a highly unequal society where the vast mass of people are denied real opportunities to develop their expressive capabilities and become who they wish to be in association with others. Analyzing what creating such a progressive democracy would entail goes beyond the purview of such an article, but I think such a society would be both freer and more meaningful than either nihilistic neoliberalism or nationalist conservatism.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

One thought on “The Failure of Nations: A Reply to Henry George

  1. The author’s aspiration is admirable, and his logic persuasive. But, and it is a BIG but, he misses a crucial piece of the puzzle. That is the time it takes for evolution and the critical impact of historical context. While we may all wish to see a single planet collective all singing in perfect harmony, the reality is that our species is clearly not yet at an evolutionary stage to realise that. History shows if we force an issue the law of unintended consequences often rears its ugly head. Timing in life, and in nature, is everything. The time for an international progressive project like the EU has not yet come, and the evidence shows trying to force it down the throats of independent nation states is counterproductive, perhaps even dangerous.

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