Nationalism and Biopolitics

Feminist critiques of liberalism (like, e.g., Carole Pateman’s) hit on a crucial point: by pointing out that the presumed or iconic liberal subject was the bourgeois male property owner, with no wife and children or, for that matter, no parents or previous childhood, to shape his entry into the marketplace, such critiques revealed liberalism’s horror of biology. Indeed, the feminist critique can easily be taken in directions that would make feminists themselves extremely distraught (thereby revealing their own liberalism): the findings of the “manosphere,” which has undertaken a systematic, auto-didactic (because the history of Western social and political thought offers about zero help here, and contemporary educational institutions offer far less except, perhaps, informally) study of sexual relations and hierarchies, shatter the assumptions of equality and rationality undergirding liberalism and feminism alike. These critiques of liberalism can easily forget that liberalism didn’t address such issues because there was no need to, as such essentially tribal relations were still visible and, in fact, constituted the tacit background out of which liberalism sought to carve a new space. But the critique becomes even more important once we consider that, at a certain point (already in the Enlightenment, but accelerating dramatically from the early 20th century on) liberalism decided not just to erect a free system of exchange over the more primitive quasi-tribalist relations but undertook to extirpate those relations altogether and install the liberal program at all sites, public and private. At that point, liberalism’s distancing of itself from biology becomes an assault on biology.

The acceleration of liberalism’s biophobia is certainly in large part due to the biopolitics of Nazism, and the consequent recoil against all attempts to bring racial differences into politics. Liberalism’s autoimmune response to the catastrophic eruption of biological differences that had been assumed marginalized was to transform itself into a self-enclosed, self-reproducing and viral system of rights that automatically excludes any claim tainted by the biological—and, like any good autoimmune system, attacks the carriers of such claims. The anathematization of nationalism and populism in liberal thinking is an expression of this autoimmune response: nationalism is not quite as deeply seeped in biology as race and sex, but there is always a racial component and sexual politics to nationalisms; while populism, likewise, reaches into that amorphous region where emotions, impulses, mimetic contagion, taunts, unspoken commonalities, and so on cannot be kept from contaminating the approved discourse of “policy,” “principles,” “accountability,” and so on.

Once the biological is let into politics, the liberal (and post/ultra-liberal, e.g., feminist) fears, there is no telling where it will end. The rule of law must be kept free from, while somehow authoritatively regulating, biological matters. The American constitution limits the “executive branch” to certain powers, and only those powers—but what if some surge of nationalism and/or populism demands an override of those limitations? That surge will almost certainly prove stronger than the categorical imperative embedded in the Constitutional provision, and why should nationalism respect such limitations—why should the question, “is it Constitutional” out-rank the question, “what’s good for the American people”? Also, biology has been overriding legality for a century already, as the government has made it its business to manage the care of the elderly, the raising of children, marital relations, food and medicine and now all of health care along with the micro-managing of the most intimate of sexual relations. Constitutionalism has apparently found no way—or shown no desire—to resist those developments. So, maybe the problem is liberalism.

While we can find no self-limiting principle in the victimary (or on the left more generally), though, we certainly can with nationalism. The nation itself, and its relations with and differences from other nations is the first such principle. Even the most horrific form of nationalism imagined by liberals, the physical expulsion of unwanted (less “national”) populations, would confront the plurality of the world as a limitation: let’s say some American nationalist of leftist nightmares decided to expel the Jews, the Mexicans, the blacks, or even the leftists themselves. Where to? Forcing such groups to simply leave and become refugees would create an enormous burden, first of all on neighboring countries, and thereby poison crucial relations. (Of course, expelling Mexican citizens who are in the US illegally would be a different matter—in that case, indeed, it is the Mexican government and nation that has acted unjustly by encouraging illegal migration, even while many Americans are, of course, complicit.) Well, maybe that leaves no choice but genocide, one might say—far easier said than done, though, without the context of a hot civil war or a policy of conquest that makes possible the allotment of faraway territories for carrying out such atrocities.

Furthermore, nationalism transcends while incorporating the tribal. At the very least, nationalism entails the free movement of all nationals through the national territory, and the free adoption of any profession by all. In other words, nationalism presupposes at least a minimal market, and that that market is protected from the imperatives of tribal honor. Insofar as the nation remains, at least to some extent, a nation of tribes, but also of cities, towns and neighborhoods, various forms of local patriotisms will ensure resistance to premature or abusive attempts to establish, preserve or restore national unity from some national center. Of course, such attempts will be made, and sometimes they will succeed, and sometimes to the benefit of the nation as a whole. (I don’t think many Frenchmen and women would prefer [or could even imagine] a France in which French was the language of the educated in the capital, with the rest of the country speaking a few dozen or so different language, even while acknowledging the cultural loss in the “expropriation” of the speakers of those languages.) But the resistance will still ensure that national ‘incorporation” is conducted in such a way as to allow the margins to adopt and inflect in their own ways national imperatives. Anomalies will always remain, though, and it’s good that they do. Nations benefit from a bit of irritation, a touch of idiosyncrasy.

Finally, every nation will have its professions, or its disciplines, and will want to take pride in those disciplines. Every real nation, and, therefore, every real nationalism, is civilized, that is. The nationalism of the nations lawyers, journalists (or bloggers), and academics (or bloggers), doctors, etc., can, of course, allow them to be swept up in pathological nationalist contagions, and lend their expertise and influence to shameful deeds. (One consequence of embracing nationalism is accepting that politics cannot be deployed so as to abolish human sinfulness—there is no ultimate answer to “what about…?” type questions.) But they (as can non-experts proud of the disciplines) can also insist that in this nation, among this people, the rule of law, professional standards, and dissemination of the truth will prevail, even in the face of the mob. And this would include, of course, for Americans, an insistence on Constitutional primacy (and the entire system of legal thinking and institutions it entails), insofar as the Constitution has become far more than a legal code, having worked its norms and its language into American discourse and culture at all levels. But American nationalism cannot wait for a constitutional “restoration” before it addresses, in some necessarily rough ways, the biopolitics of immigration in particular. Indeed, a nationalist restoration (evidence of which would be that more than one presidential candidate would be simply taking for granted in casual utterances that America should be for Americans) is a precondition for a constitutionalism that would be something other than a Trojan Horse for a transnational progressive (“human rights”) legal regime. To take a concept from the cultural left, that restoration would require the “circulation” of nationalist “bodies”: nationalist masculinities and femininities, ethnicized and maybe even racialized nationalisms, popular and elite nationalisms, and so on. The US has some of this—but we had a lot more of it 30 years ago, and even more 60 years ago—and such overt expressions of American pride and uncritical belonging and celebration have been increasingly seen as shameful. It is the attempts to make those expressions shameful that should become shameful.

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