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Nationalism: No Longer a Dirty Word, But Complicated as Ever

“If it is possible to have symbols and narratives that bind an imagined community of 300 million people or of one billion, it should be equally possible to imagine a community of seven billion and to construct a coherent narrative around it and create appropriate symbolisms.”

Nationalism is rapidly losing its taboo status. Poisoned by the wars of the 19th century and up to the First and Second World Wars, it became a kind of dirty word for the latter half of the 20th century and even the first decade of the 21st. Now the latest elections for the European Parliament saw the nationalist bloc of parties increase its size, while the traditional moderate parties on both the Left and the Right saw losses across the board. This is particularly noteworthy coming from Europe, the continent that has undoubtedly lost the largest number of lives due to nationalistic conflicts. But it is certainly not limited to Europe. Right-wing populists drawing heavily on nationalist sentiments have had a string of electoral successes around the world. Perhaps the most notable is Donald Trump, who, himself probably nothing more than an empty receptacle of ideology, rode a wave of nationalistic fervor sponsored by the likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller into the White House. Elsewhere, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines have both similarly used combinations of popular anti-establishment anger coupled with appeals to national pride.

That is, it is entirely possible that some nations are defined ethically, others linguistically, and others yet by ideology. The Japanese may be an example of the first, the Italians of the second, and Americans of the third.

At the same time, efforts have been made by intellectuals and public figures to give nationalism a kind of cleaner foundation to make it more appealing to a broader audience. To its supporters, these efforts are probably something like an attempt to bring nationalism back to its “true” purpose of binding people together with a shared sense of identity. For its detractors, however, it is more likely a thinly veiled attempt at whitewashing. I certainly fall in the latter category, and I make no secret of the fact that my fundamental gripes with nationalism are ethical in origin. But here I want to put ethics aside and make a purely pragmatic case against it. So, if I am successful, the argument should work whether one supports it as a matter of principle or not. My main contention is that in order for nationalism to work as a political model or ideology, it depends on what I will call national realism. What I mean by this is that there are certain groups of people that we can objectively identify as a nation. For this to be true, there does not even need to be a single defining criterion. That is, it is entirely possible that some nations are defined ethically, others linguistically, and others yet by ideology. The Japanese may be an example of the first, the Italians of the second, and Americans of the third. These are only meant for illustrative purposes and not meant to be taken as theoretical models, as there is a myriad of complicating factors, such as ethnicities defined by language. What I will try to show is that no matter how many or how few criteria for defining nations one might use, national realism ultimately fails. Now, this does not mean that nation states are useless or that we should move to abolish them as quickly as possible. It only implies that nationalism cannot be anything other than a transition phase in history. It is also an ultimately unstable and unsustainable one that has to be replaced with something else.

Benedict Anderson, in Imagined Communities, provided one of the most articulate explanations of the rise of nationalism. His account makes it clear that, while national narratives claim millenarian and quasi-natural histories, nationalism—and what I called national realism—are a very modern phenomenon and a rather artificial one at that. The idea of nations and national consciousness did not really develop until the 19th century, and even then, the factors that gave modern nations their demarcations are rather arbitrary in the sense that slightly different historical developments would have yielded different results. In many cases, administrative territories prefigured what eventually came to be seen as obvious national units. One such example is the transition from feudalism to absolutism. Anderson contrasts the feudal nobleman who, on taking the title, travels to the capital to swear loyalty to the monarch and returns to his own fiefdom, with the absolutist bureaucrat who has no fixed home and may serve anywhere across the realm in accordance with his talent. Concretely, one might imagine the succession of Dukes of Burgundy traveling to Paris upon accession to their peerage to sweat fealty to the King of France and then returning to Burgundy to tend to their own affairs. This paints a very localist picture when contrasted with a commoner bureaucrat rising through the ranks of French administration, likely moving all over France in the hopes of eventually landing a post in Paris. The latter, when sufficiently multiplied, begins to create a class of people who begin to see the Kingdom of France as a single coherent entity, rather than the more abstract concept of the feudal lords, more devoted to their own estates. Processes like this, coupled with the elevation of particular vernaculars to official administrative languages, mostly out of convenience through the 19th century, begins to finally form the modern nations.

From here, one might rather simplistically argue that this artificial, even forced creation of national identities, proves that national realism is little more than a social construct and, therefore, ought to be discarded. But that is not my argument. Whether something is a social construct or not, I think, is largely irrelevant. The State is probably the prime example of a social construct, and that does not make it any less real or useful. So I acknowledge that it is perfectly possible for nations to be artificial constructs but still useful and desirable. At the same time, a national realist could argue that the birth and construction of national identities are irrelevant, so long as they provide a foundation for the nation-state.

Nationalist arguments usually come down to two fundamental theses. The first is that nations provide a kind of sense of solidarity and shared identity without which democratic and social institutions would not function properly. As an example, used by British political philosopher David Miller, is that people are more likely to support policies which require personal contributions like the welfare state when they know that such contributions will benefit one of their own. The implication, of course, is that entities larger than nations cannot command or inspire this form of commitment to fellow individuals. Miller is explicit about this claim, and he argues against full scale moral universalism on the basis that we as individuals, even if we believe in universal moral principles, are far better suited to attend the needs of those with which we have special relationships than any other given human being. Thus, the nation has ethical and instrumental value because it allows us better to fulfill the universalist obligations to our fellow humans. The second thesis, while related, has a more outward outlook. This position, most recently defended by Yoram Hazony, argues that the nation-state as defined in the European order by the Treaty of Westphalia (or by Mosaic Law as given in the Hebrew Bible) is the best, if not the only way for a government to effectively protect its subjects and to preserve peace among the nations of the world. Hazony accepts Miller’s basic framework of shared identity and cohesion, but he differs in the way he views universalism.

While Miller simply views universalism as too weak of a framework to support institutions, Hazony identifies it as a dangerous source of conflict. Hazony gives his own definition of nationalism a relevant precision: the nationalist is focused on his own nation and has no outward ambition. He takes this from the biblical sources that he identifies as the foundations of the Westphalian order and cites how Moses instructs the Israelites to not try to take the lands of neighboring peoples. In this sense, the nationalist order will tend toward peace insofar as it is respected. Importantly, Hazony identifies universalism with imperialism. Returning to the Westphalian example, he argues that, more than a religious conflict, the Thirty Years War which preceded it was more accurately a conflict between the universalist and nationalist models. In this case, the universalist side was represented by the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire, both devoted to the idea of a universal catholic order.

Now, one may argue that this precision that Hazony makes is nothing more than an ad hoc sleight of hand or a “No True Scotsman” type of fallacy simply meant to wave away any forms of nationalism that he finds inconvenient to make his ethical argument. But we can accept Hazony’s definition, and the nationalist case, as defended by both Miller and Hazony, would still fail. This is where we need to return to national realism. The first part of the argument for both (perhaps more explicitly for Miller) is related to scale. That is, nations are the desirable and stable order because something larger would fail to inspire the same sense of solidarity. This claim sees national commitments as an extension of family of tribal commitments. We are born into and raised by families. This creates our bonds to them, which we then extend to the clan and to the nation. But this is by all accounts wholly arbitrary. I don’t think it is hard to make the case that we are “wired” to more easily accept loyalty and obligations to smaller social units such as the family—not in the least because of the direct contact we have with its members. This claim is highly suspect when applied to something in the scale of a nation of tens of thousands to hundreds of millions of people, the vast majority of whom we will never meet.

I cannot understand how we are supposed to believe that the imaginative leap that we have to make to transition from a social unit of a hundred individuals to one of five, ten, or fifty million is somehow smaller than the one from the latter to seven billion.

This, incidentally is why Benedict Anderson calls nations “imagined communities”; it is not because they are imaginary or not real, but because of their scale, they require an exercise of imagination on our part to see ourselves as part of such a community. I cannot understand how we are supposed to believe that the imaginative leap that we have to make to transition from a social unit of a hundred individuals to one of five, ten, or fifty million is somehow smaller than the one from the latter to seven billion. The scale of national populations is already far outside the scope of what a human brain can wrap its mind around. The argument becomes even weaker if we consider that Martha Nussbaum’s argument for cosmopolitanism follows a similar logic. Only taken to its logical conclusion, growing obligations do not stop at the national level but at the level of all of humanity. Finally, on this point, we should consider the fact that there is no way to agree on what is the proper scale of a nation. Ireland has a population of just above five million people, but 21 Chinese cities alone have a larger population. Yet China has a long history, perhaps longer than most European States, and it would be difficult to argue that China is somehow not a nation due to its size, if we accept that we can identify individual nations.

Unlike the family or the clan, or even perhaps the city, in which a sense of identity can grow out of real contact and experiences either with people or physical spaces, an imagined community such as a nation has to rely on narrative and symbolism. This is evident when one considers that most people will not only never meet an appreciable fraction of their fellow nationals—but most likely never physically know their whole country. Yet humanity has continued to move from the smallest social units to ever larger ones, from families and tribes, to city-states and small-scale lordships to nation-states, and more recently even nascent supranational entities like the European Union. As Immanuel Kant noted in his “Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose,”this is not a steady unidirectional flow. We often see regressions, and actions at the individual level are not geared toward a single purpose. But on the largest scale, there is a definite tendency. Now, Kant attributed this to human nature, but it is not necessary to accept that there is such a thing as human nature to agree with the larger point. The previous discussion illustrates, in part, why I believe an order based on nations is unstable and cannot be the final destination of humanity, so to speak. And so, if it is possible to have symbols and narratives that bind an imagined community of 300 million people or of one billion, it should be equally possible to imagine a community of seven billion and to construct a coherent narrative around it and create appropriate symbolisms.

But there is a second issue that points to the instability of national realism and to why it cannot hold in the long run. This has to do with Hazony’s assertion that the nationalist view is limited to its own scope and cannot have expansionist tendencies. Even if we accept this, this points to the fundamental issue with national realism. It would require an ultimate supreme authority capable of determining what gives a group of people the right to call themselves a nation, or even to consider other groups of people as part of their own nation. The nationalist of the kind that Hazony argues for not only supports their own nation but supports a world order in which nations have a right to self-determination. But this begs the question: Are the Canadian and the Spanish nationalists right, or are the Quebecois and Catalan nationalists? Each of them has a case to make and can argue based on language, culture, history, etc. The Catalan nationalist might argue that Catalonia with its unique language should have the right to self-determination, but the Spanish nationalist can reply that the histories of the Kingdoms of Castile and Aragon are so inextricably linked, that Catalonia cannot be understood as a separate nation. One person’s nationalism is another’s imperialism and imposition. Conversely, one’s nationalism is another’s sedition. Even a country often regarded (perhaps rightly) as lacking any national identity such as Belgium can find some kind of national pride under the right circumstances as its national football team advances to a historic third-place finish in the FIFA World Cup.

The question of nationhood is so subjective that it is ultimately undecidable. And this is what knocks down Hazony’s claim about a sort of peace of sovereign nations. We don’t even need to go down the route of Nazi examples. Let us look instead at the German wars of unification in the late 19th century and the Russian occupation of Crimea in 2014. We could call these Prussian and Russian imperialism respectively, and from certain point of view, that could be true. But this ignores the fact that from the perspective of the Prussian and Russian leadership, this was most certainly not the case. Prussia did not see itself as a full nation but only as a part of the German nation which, until then, remained divided in several States, some independent, but some part of other States, such as Alsace and Lorraine in France and Schleswig-Holstein in Denmark. Given the refusal of France and Denmark to willingly cede these territories, and thus allow the German nation to be finally whole, the only remaining option from a nationalist perspective was to go to war. The same logic applies with Crimea, Ukraine, and Russia.

That is the root of the problem. A world order based on nationalism requires national realism to be true, but it decidedly cannot be because the question of nationhood is unsolvable. To reiterate, this does not mean that we need to move to immediately abolish nation states. It does mean, however, that defending a national world order is a futile enterprise. Of course, I do not claim to know a time frame for any of this, and it should be left to the natural course of history.

As a final note, I should say that even if I believe that the national order is unsustainable and I am ethically opposed to nationalism, I also believe that nationalist fears of cultural erasure are widely overblown. On the one hand, much like stopping at the level of the nation when identifying one’s loyalties is arbitrary, so it is to claim that what a national culture looks like today has some special status. That cultures change, mix, and reinvent themselves constantly is practically a truism, yet, one often conveniently ignored for political reasons. And finally, that a language such a Monégasque, or the indigenous languages of the Americas exist to this day, should be all the proof that one needs about the resiliency of certain cultural elements in the face of overwhelming odds.

Néstor de Buen holds an M.A. in social sciences from The University of Chicago. He has previously written at Quillette. He can be followed on Twitter @nestor_d or reached by email at

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