Nationalism is where rivalries internal to a social order meet rivalries between social orders—where the internal rivalries are converted to and transcended by (originally through some more or less explicit, more or less imposed, pact between tribes or smaller kingdoms) the external rivalries, and the external rivalries shape and limit the internal ones. All opposition to nationalism tries to prevent the crystallization of that meeting point: to squelch internal rivalries so that some elite in control of the state can manage external rivalries on its own terms; or, to make external rivalries impossible or invisible so internal rivalries can be squashed in the name of keeping the peace.
This understanding of nationalism would, I think, explain a lot. First of all, I think it would account for the rivalries between the ancient Greek city-states which, on these terms, could be called “nationalistic”—the Greek city-states promoted internal rivalries to an extent that many of us today would find insane, which might account for the constant wars between them, and it may very well be that a workable balance between internal and external rivalries was never attained—leaving the nationalist communities easy prey for empires. It also explains why the emergently nationalist early modern Europe found it so difficult to remain united in response to the perpetual threat of the Ottoman Empire—the conversion of internal to external rivalries can’t scale up to the size of a civilization or an empire, even if provisional alliances are always possible. Third, it would explain the hostility of virtually all forms of political theory and philosophy to nationalism—Marxism, liberalism, communitarianism, even fascism all find nationalism to be a troublesome perplexity, because the maintenance and free play of internal rivalries is alien to all attempts to eliminate mediations between individual and state or individual and society (or, in the case of communitarianism, a rather minor affair at any rate, to evade the competitions at the individual and international levels by defining communities in fundamentally cooperative terms); while the acceptance of international rivalries as both “natural” and a beneficial spur to internal strivings explodes all modern utopias. Does nationalism have its political theorist? Or has it always been a kind of blot on all political theories? The obstacle to theorizing nationalism past a certain point is that the meeting point where internal rivalries meet external is always shifting and itself a site of rivalry—unlike liberalism’s right of the individual, for example, or socialism’s transformation of the relations of production, we could never imagine subjecting that process to a “law,” or axiomatic definition.
The need for robust internal rivalries allows for an understanding of “rights” in nationalistic terms. Rivalries must be engaging and exciting; they must be “real” and consequential, both at play and at work—but they must not be allowed to spill into civil war or sheer exclusion of one part of the national community. That means strict rules, tacit and explicit, are required to limit the scope of competition to circumscribed fields—these rules translate into “rights” for individuals. We’re not talking about “natural” rights here, but simply rules protecting the autonomy of fields of play, and the freedom of movement from one field to another. (So, for example, “free speech” would not be so much about individual rights as about the need to have competition in the fields of journalism, science, etc.) External rivalries generate internal differentiations as fields that help one nation compete with others are promoted—science, economics and technology most obviously, but there is competition between nations in the literary, diplomatic, athletic and many other fields. In this way, transnational communities of scientists, athletes, merchants, writers and artists, etc., are generated, in (usually) harmless, productive tension with national loyalties. Nations engaged in such rivalries become more like each other, which, as we know from the laws of mimesis, can make their rivalries more deadly, but also makes possible the creation of a body of law and custom regulating interaction. None of this is possible with transnational institutions like the EU or UN, or transnational progressive organizations committed to chimeras like “international human rights”—or, needless to say, with empires, whether established on ecumenical or religious terms. Even the liberal, rights-based, state ultimately finds nationalism to be an irritant, or worse, and such states, insofar as they flourish, must set out to break up nationalist inclining institutions and weaken the majoritarian tendencies needed to convert internal rivalries into external ones. A certain kind of radical libertarianism, though, which seeks to abolish the state while accepting the stratifications of a free society and the autonomy of all institutions from any center, can easily be compatible with a kind of ragged, perhaps intermittent, nationalism.
A healthy nationalism has no tolerance for outright treason, of course, but it has plenty of room for idiosyncrasies, abstentions, dissidence and even plural loyalties, at the margins—after all, there’s no way of knowing for sure what cultural innovations will become a genuine possession of the nation and source of national honor, while having some citizens with relatives, friends and commitments in other countries can be converted into access to and intelligence regarding those countries (like American German and Japanese speakers during WWII). More embattled nationalisms, though, may need to withdraw some liberties, and keep citizens in the established channels of competition; without taking advantage of opportunities to open up a bit, however, it is unlikely that second and third tier nations will be able to elevate their standing. And this is why, as I have emphasized in my previous nationalistic posts, nationalism is ultimately more of a civilizing than a barbarizing force—and, when it comes to civilizing, two steps forward and one step backward is probably the best we can do.