What’s So Good About Nationalism?

Nationalism has a justifiably bad reputation, given its responsibility for many or most of the horrors of the last two centuries.  Is there anything good about nationalism?  According to Liah Greenfeld in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity, the origins of nationalism lie in the desire for dignity.  Commoners in 17th Century England were elevated to the status of “the people,” who exercised sovereignty through representative institutions just like the aristocracy, and peasants in revolutionary France became citizens, whose unleashed energies would conquer much of Europe.  Nationalism gave the middle-classes and even the lowest-born a reason to feel proud of belonging to the “nation” and included among the “people.”  We still see these psychological benefits of nationalism play out today among the working classes of the advanced democracies (e.g. the religious right in the U.S. or soccer hooligans in England).  Being part of the nation gives people a reason to be proud, and if the working class has fewer reasons to be proud individually (e.g. income or occupation), they have all the more reason to be proud of their countries.

Nationalism may have provoked enmity between nations, but it led to solidarity within nations, and this has directly benefited the working class by enabling transfer payments from rich to poor.  To the extent that the rich feel a sense of community with the working classes, they will feel a greater sense of obligation toward them.  Historically, the welfare state has provided entitlements due to all citizens by virtue of their inclusion in the nation, and it has been shown empirically that ethnically diverse nations (e.g. the United States) have been less generous with transfer payments than more homogenous nations (e.g. Sweden), simply because we are more likely to help people we can easily identify with.  Nationalism helped the rich identify with the poor.  Equal status as citizens, defined in contrast with citizens of other nations, overrode domestic status distinctions and directly benefited the working class.  This is no purely academic issue.  The whole infrastructure of equal opportunity in the advanced democracies, including equal access to education, health services, and political participation, is premised on the fundamental equality of citizens belonging to a nation whose state structures “help out their own.”  Before the nation-state, the poor could not expect such help, because they were of a completely different status from the rich.  Within living memory, racial minorities in the U.S. could not expect equal access because the nation was still in part defined by ethnicity.

Imagine a reversion to a time before nationalism, when the European aristocracy all spoke French and identified with one another more than with their co-nationals.  In China, the governing elite identified with the court of the emperor and with Chinese civilization but not with ordinary peasants (unless from the same village or perhaps province).  This time is not so hard to imagine, as it seems to be recurring today, especially in global cities like Shanghai, London, and New York, where professionals from around the world in high-status, globally-competitive industries like finance, consulting, and media congregate and speak English amongst themselves.  Beginning with globalization in the 1990s and the full exploitation of the internet in the 2000s, elite occupational groups and the educationally-accomplished have found it easier to connect and communicate internationally, and have therefore come to a stronger sense of their own identities separate from their national identities.  When they gather together physically and talk to each other in English, these national differences dissolve in contrast to their many similarities in lifestyles, values, and life-expectations.  Greater identification of the global elites with themselves is likely to result in lower identification with their co-nationals, and this may result in lower material concern for the working classes of their own nations.  In the absence of some effective conduit for transfer payments other than the nation-state, the poor will suffer.

A sense of collective feeling is not as abstract as a word like “nationalism” would seem to imply (or as abstruse as the intellectual baggage associated with those thinkers who “invented” nationalism).  In our home countries, it is not so hard to cultivate a sense of vertical solidarity.  This happens when, most simply, we go to the store and have a friendly chat with a clerk who is of a different class, or when our relatives come to visit us and we identify with differing life-circumstances, or when we participate in the civic lives of our nations, whether through volunteering or involvement in electoral politics.  Notice that these avenues of collective identification are often absent for the global elite, especially if living abroad.  We expatriates are rarely able communicate naturally and on equal terms with ordinary local people, either because they don’t speak English and we are not fluent in the local language, or they do speak English but we are so much better that we make them uncomfortable.  Given the difficulty of Chinese, this is especially true of Shanghai, but also applies to a French national working in Russia or a German national working in Brazil.  This is to say nothing of family visits (much less frequent abroad) or our civic lives (which are usually non-existent).  Instead, the global expatriate elite largely cultivates a sense of horizontal solidary with itself.  This is just as similar income or occupational groups bond easily with their co-nationals in their home countries, with the crucial exception that this fundamentally class-based solidarity is counteracted by experiences of vertical solidarity in their everyday, non-professional lives.  To the extent that the global elite segregates itself abroad, as it does in Shanghai, vertical solidarity is much harder to achieve and therefore can do little to counteract the effects of horizontal solidarity.  This is not to say that expatriate elites cannot sympathize with the local working classes, but that it is much harder to personally identify with them, because we do not share a common language, common cultural reference points, or a common national lore.  It is simply harder for we expatriates to imagine ourselves in the same economic circumstances as many locals, or that “this could be me, but for the luck of the draw.”

Although this may sound like a plea from the left, none of the above is to advocate any particular position, except that we should be more conscious of the role that nationalism has played in our identification with the working classes in our home countries, and that the dynamics of globalization seem to be moving us toward a less egalitarian era.  While many have observed that inequality has been increasing due to the economics of globalization, I only point out that net of such factors, decreasing national identification may result, politically, in weakened measures to alleviate inequality within nations.  The politics of much of the global elite is often at odds with itself.   While, on the one hand, their positions tend toward the left in terms of tolerance of difference, personal and political openness, and international cooperation, especially with regards to the environment, on the other hand, their professional and personal lives (especially if abroad) depend on and reproduce a process that denationalizes them and weakens the psychological basis for their support of transfer payments to the poor – the core position of the left, if there is any.  What makes them still identify with the left is an “idea” of equality, yet in the absence of national identification, this is in danger of becoming merely an idea, and not a lived, felt experience of their fellow citizens in need.

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One Response to What’s So Good About Nationalism?

  1. Tiger says:

    I like your line that “Nationalism may have provoked enmity between nations, but it has led to solidarity within nations”–simple and powerful. But I doubt when you say nationalism “has directly benefited the working class by enabling transfer payments from rich to poor”, you mean the origin of nationalism. Today, unfortunately, it seems nationalism is declining at least partly because of the increasing gap between rich and poor.

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