GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

November 11, 2015

The Dialectics of Nationalism

Filed under: GA — adam @ 7:59 pm

One thing that all the American nationalists I have come across recently have in common is their insistence on non-intervention abroad. The nationalists can often sound like leftists in their denunciations of American “imperialism” and “nation building,” with the crusading neo-conservative coming in for special scorn. It is, of course, logical and Kantian that, if your fundamental political commitment is to national sovereignty, coherence and defense, you would respect with regard to others what you demand for yourself. Since nationalism is intrinsically rivalrous, though, anti-interventionism is also an illusion, one that can be indulged in by the politically marginalized, but will be abandoned quickly if the nationalists ever wield significant political power. This illusion is similar to the fantasy of an ethnically homogeneous nation, and both illusions share the same roots. To say that a political imaginary has illusions is not to discredit it—it is almost the same thing as calling it a “political imaginary,” which any political order must have. The more paradoxical and generative the illusions, the more interesting and “informative” the political order—the durability of that order, though, does depend upon managing, limiting and channeling those illusions.

To be a nationalist is to define your nation in comparison to and competition with other nations. It is to assume that there are more and less successful nations. It follows that the less successful nations will emulate and resent the more successful. This introduces divisions into the less successful nations between those who would like to transform the indigenous culture so as to approximate more closely the successful nation, and those who define national identity in terms of some resentful distinction from the more successful nation (success and failure are redefined). It also introduces a division in the more successful nation between those who would like to cultivate patronage relations and alliances with the less successful nation and those who see the less successful nation’s resentments as harbingers of future hostility, and counsel distance and preparedness. This dialectic inevitably takes on geographic and demographic forms. The emulative members of the LSN will often take up residence in the MSN, and the welcoming members of the MSN will promote such a development; patronizing members of the MSN will move to the LSN, taking advantage of whatever advantages have made them more successful. And even the more resentful members of the LSN will feel compelled to move to the MSN to have access to economic, educational and other opportunities which members of the MSN who no longer wish to carry out less desirable functions will consent to yield to the LSN immigrants.

Moreover, since nations never coincide with ethnic distinctions (which are themselves inherently vague and characterized by minute gradations across territories), national boundaries are always imperfect, with people who identify more with one nation being “trapped” within the boundaries of another nation. A nation is a union of tribes, almost invariably created through an alliance against some imperial or monarchical order—the tribes within the union will be connected to tribes that fall out of it through familial, linguistic and other ties, and these connections will be maintained across borders. (This leaves aside ethnically similar demographics that nevertheless identify with transnational faiths or institutions, such as English or German Catholics, or Jews, who pose similar problems—and it’s very common for the religious divisions to overlap geographic and ethnic ones.) Both MSN and LSN nations will have an interest in leveraging such fuzzy loyalties, which will entangle conflicts within and between the nations. MSN will usually, but not always, prevail in such conflicts, which will redraw boundaries (national honor cannot allow a victory to go without spoils) and lay the groundwork for future conflicts. Nor is this dynamic restricted to neighboring nations. If a MSN with, say, a developed market and a network of merchants and bankers, is allowed or invited (or even if a few enterprising individuals insinuate themselves through force and fraud) into a more distant LSN for the sake of exploiting or elevating the condition of its people (or even the elite portion of that people), those colonists are potential hostages who must be protected in the name of national reputation. The MSN must be willing to use force, which may very well involve long-term occupation of the LSN, or some part of it, or the establishment of “puppet” governments dependent on the MSN. And, finally, more than one MSN might have such interests in LSNs, generating new conflicts between the MSNs (some of whom must be at least marginally more successful than the others, bringing that entire dynamic into play). For the MSNs to behave otherwise would be to allow the LSMs to chip away at their own borders and counter their own advantages through alliances and subversions of their own.

This last point alludes to the obvious question of what makes a nation more successful—and the equally obvious answer, as libertarian theorist Hans Hermann-Hoppe argues, is the nation that allows for more of a free market within the territory it controls, which generally means the more civilized nation. To add yet another paradox into the mix, as Hermann-Hoppe also argues, this means that the nations with the freest economies will also be the most aggressive conquering nations, not only because their wealth translates into military and political power but also because they will be the nations that cultivate the most wide reaching and entrenched interests in foreign countries, as they will be best able to exploit such interests to enrich and empower itself. As the conquering liberal nation comes to bring more and more nations within its direct and indirect sway, it also produces the most cosmopolitan tendencies, becomes the most open to external influences and movement of peoples, and that much less of a nation: generating a new kind of resentment, that of those who once ruled the world but are now being subsumed in and overwhelmed by it.

All this has been essentially an abstract account of modern European history p until the 20th century, the only history of nations (tribes transcended by their unity and new differentiation into classes) in interaction with each other in the history of the world. It’s easy to see how this dialectic led to the catastrophic “thirty years war” of the 20th century West, and any defense of nationalism today would be advised to offer a credible explanation of why this need not be the inevitable outcome of a world of nations. (Or, more pessimistically, why even this possibility is preferable to the anti-nationalist alternatives.)

Despite the contempt heaped upon the more liberal notion of America as a “proposition nation” by American nationalists, sooner or later any nationalism will settle into some kind of propositional form: the nation has to be “about” something. That something need not be some principle abstracted from (and therefore imposed upon) the people, and that is where critics of American “propositionality” are right. The notion of America as a proposition nation derives from Lincoln, in particular his Gettysburg Address, and it is both justified and historically accurate to trace the proposition, “all men are created equal,” to which Lincoln declared the American founding to be “dedicated,” to an older understanding of “British liberties,” embedded in the traditions of people of British stock—and, therefore, to question whether peoples of other stocks can easily conform to those principles. This debate takes us to the heart of the American Civil War—the Southern partisans claimed that by “all men,” the founders really meant “white men,” and there may be something to that, but they did write “all men” rather than “white men” for reasons that are not too hard to imagine. The meaning of propositions cannot be controlled by the contingent intentions of those who assert them—they always transcend the conditions of their utterance because the effectivity of their utterance depends upon them opening up a horizon beyond the immediately local. To refer to my previous post, it is still incumbent upon the guardians of the national proposition to operationalize the sincerity conditions of iterations of that proposition: the national proposition must set conditions for that convergence of rivalries within the nation with rivalries between nations that I have proposed as the definition of nationalism. The exemplars of “British liberties” are not required to universalize those liberties so that they map onto the already existing dispositions of new entrants onto the national stage; rather, those new entrants are obliged to adopt and adapt to those British liberties so as to prove that they are not exclusively “British.” (Nearly explicit in Lincoln’s formulation is that the proposition is a hypothesis that might be falsified.)

In a world of nationalisms, there are no guarantees. There are no guarantees in any world, but at least in a world of nationalisms, defined by its constantly shifting rivalries, this would be explicit. Even the horror of nuclear war between the world’s leading nations and, by now, even some of its second-rank nations, provides no assurance that national rivalries won’t lead us to a brink that some miscalculation or arrogant short-sightedness could tip us over. It may be the best that we can hope for is, first, the shrinking gap between first, second, and third rank powers will prevent the kind of concentration of power into stable imperialist blocs that could focus all attention on each other; and second, a renewed recognition of the fragility of civilization, now threatened by a world wide jihad against paralyzed rich nations, will make common interests among the civilized nations outweigh their rivalries—or, better yet, that their rivalries will get channeled into competitions over the defense of civilization, internally and externally. The countries that can best leverage, while making national membership condition of this possibility, their ethnic, religious and cultural minorities and the international interventions (and consequent alliances) they are drawn into will succeed and the set the model for others.

The post-nationalist political imaginary models a nationalist world unrestrained by international institutions on the originary scene: as all-encompassing imminently violent rivalry just waiting for someone to pull the first trigger. Certainly the configuration of individual nations in competition over resources, power and prestige fits the model. Ultimately the Nazi genocide of the Jews exemplifies this model, as a world war of competing nationalisms ends up targeting the minority (the paradoxical nation, dispersed and extra-territorial) that never managed to fit, unproblematically, into any of them. That’s why even the most normal nationalism—say, the Hungarians’ refusal to allow more than a very small number of “Syrian” refugees—triggers a quasi-allergic response from the transnational progressives. But it may be that precisely the more prickly nationalism, which responds in kind to every insult or injury, that will keep the peace, rather than attempts to defer these conflicts to international mediation that will be satisfactory to the extent that it was unnecessary in the first place. The Mexican government provides aid and advice to its citizens trying to stay in the US illegally—that’s no causus belli, but there are plenty of ways of retaliating far short of war. Such tit for tat exchanges may seem childish, and in a sense they are—but they are also the most important way in which we continue to learn from social interactions throughout our lives. It may be that the cause of WWI and hence the profound crisis of European civilization in which we still find ourselves was less unchecked nationalism and more the pervasive fantasy of endless enlightenment and progress so ascendant in Europe at the turn of the century—if you imagine that universal comity is transcending all rivalries, you would not find any reason to engage those rivalries, to test the relative strengths and weakness, real and imagined, of the respective parties. And then you will be shocked and disillusioned to discover that mimeticism has not yet disappeared from the planet.

I would recommend watching, if you haven’t already, the video referenced and linked to in this report from Breitbart News: The Breitbart writer’s unease with the antisemitism that emerges at a couple of crucial points in this very powerful video marks a split between the philo-semitic and antisemitic factions within the global right that is sure to intensify in coming years. While among the villains of the piece are European elites making the demographic argument for increased immigration that Mark Steyn has been harping on for more than a decade, it’s not clear that the nationalists have an answer to that inescapable question. If your nation stops having babies, the suicide is not exactly “enforced”—even if it can be dramatically accelerated through force and fraud. The real test of a reinvigorated nationalism is whether it generates a new baby boom. Faith provides a compelling reason for procreation, but we don’t know if the kind of immortality offered by the nation still does so. Only a very profound, multilayered revolution will enable one to answer that question confidently in the affirmative. At least the requirements of that revolution converge with those of the anti-victimocratic revolution that is its precondition, insofar as having more than the replacement level number of offspring is a way of engaging in inter-familial, inter-regional, and international rivalry—so, it can all be rolled up into one ball.

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