Philosophy Weekend: Nationalism and Alienation

Nationalism feels so natural to us — to all of us, during this age on planet Earth — that we barely question it. We could solve a few problems by questioning the basic concept of nationalism itself.

Virulent public arguments over immigration reform are currently taking place in the United States of America (a controversial bill may become law this week). Immigration reform has many facets; it involves taxation, employment, ethnicity, health care, education, voting patterns. But with all the talk that’s flying around, nobody on either the liberal or conservative side ever acknowledges that the concept of immigration rests upon the more basic concept of nationalism, and that nationalism itself is not a necessary or historically deep-rooted political reality.

In fact, nationalism is a relatively recent phenomenon on planet Earth. Historians agree that nationalism began with the American Revolution, French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. It gradually came to dominate Europe and the Americas, and spread to Asia and Africa in the 20th Century. Earlier, Wikipedia says:

In Europe before the development of nationalism, people were generally loyal to a religion or to a particular leader rather than to their nation.

The word “nationalism” was coined by a interesting Prussian philosopher and critic, Johann Gottfried Herder, who appears to have been some kind of proto-sociologist and precursor to Max Weber and Carl Jung. (I think I’ll learn more about J.G. Herder and write about him again on this blog soon). Herder was not a proponent of nationalism, but rather an observer of the nationalist crazes that began with Napoleon’s redrawing of the Central European map at the height of his imperial success. Even after Napoleon’s defeat by Austria, Prussia and Russia, it was clear that a nationalist state of mind, originating with Napoleon’s revolutions, had become the norm in Austria and Prussia (this led to the creation in 1871 of a nation called Germany, which would develop an occasional habit of taking nationalism too far).

It seems that the Napoleonic empire’s brief sweep over Europe amounted to a “European Spring” for many potent ideologies, including nationalism, socialism and communism. It’s interesting to realize that nationalism’s historical roots don’t actually go much deeper than those of communism or socialism, and may be no more natural to the human race than either socialism of communism. We take nationalism for granted today, but perhaps we shouldn’t.

What is a nation? Functionally, economically, politically, militarily, it is a unit, a community, a group self. We tend to take our citizenship seriously, and we’re not kidding when we call non-citizens “aliens”.

I’m supposed to feel a kinship with a person in Oklahoma that I’m not supposed to feel for a person in Mexico. Why? Because the person from Oklahoma pays into the same tax pool that I do? Okay, well … the person in Mexico shares the Atlantic Ocean with me. I would prefer a concept of citizenship that allows me to express my kinship with every person in the world, and I’m not at all convinced that such a change would create a political or economic calamity.

A couple of years ago, I wrote a chapter in my memoir of Silicon Alley in which I had a surprising revelation. After a year in which I experienced great financial success due to a dot-com IPO, I discovered that I was not a bit happier than any other year, because the success was just my own, but other people in my life were still going through various traumas and crises (including, at the time, cancer, alcoholism, divorce).

I realized at this time that a person can’t be happy if he’s surrounded by loved ones who are unhappy, and that this is the obvious reason that personal success often fails to bring happiness. I think the same pattern holds true for nations.

I can’t feel the United States of America is prosperous if the nations we share a border with are not prosperous. I would happily trade some of the abundance of modern American society — it would be good riddance, in many cases — if I could share some of this abundance more widely. So I really don’t know why I shouldn’t support immigration reform that helps my country be a more generous neighbor, and a better citizen of the world. Sure sounds like the right idea to me.

On a broader front, I’d love to illuminate the often tiresome public debates about immigration by questioning the more fundamental presumption of nationalism that underlies our debates about immigration. Why do we cling to hard to our nationalist pride, our patriotic (but globally alienating) sense of a collective self? If we consider that World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Iraq Wars all revolved around virulent presumptions of national interest, and virulent expressions of nationalist patriotism, it becomes clear that nationalism has not had a great track record on planet Earth.

I’m sure I’ll be accused of going all “Kumbaya” for suggesting that we can all be citizens of the world. Well, I’d rather sing “Kumbaya” than “Duetschland Uber Alles”, or “Le Marseillaise”, or “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

11 Responses

  1. What you are calling
    What you are calling nationalism is to my mind a pretty big advance in human civilization over the tribalism feudalism and monarchy it superseded.

  2. Probably true, TKG, but that
    Probably true, TKG, but that doesn’t mean we can’t advance further!

  3. i would sooner have money &
    i would sooner have money & be happy than broke & happy

  4. Levi –
    Levi –
    I really enjoy your Philosophy Weekend posts! Ever have one of those moments when everything you read and see seems to be pointing you in the same direction? I’m just finishing up Mario Vargas Llosa’s ‘The Dream of the Celt’ which is a fictional account of the life of Irish Nationalist (though so much more) Roger Casement. Casement – after exposing the atrocities taking place in the Belgium Congo and Amazon Peru – was eventually executed by the British government as a traitor for his work for independent rule in Ireland.

    In your post you ask, “Why do we cling so hard to our nationalist pride, our patriotic (but globally alienating) sense of a collective self?” Yet, for Casement – who Yeats supposedly called “the most universal Irishman” – ‘nationalism’ became just another, more personal, facet of the anti-colonial stance he’d taken throughout his life.

    Back on topic: I disagree that viewing immigration through the lens of Nationalism would add anything to the debate. One reason is because most Americans identify themselves with their immigrant forebears home country. Irish-, Hispanic-, and Italian-Americans to name a few. I’d argue that the majority of men and women in this country embrace their ethnicity to greater or lesser extents and this is not a debate about geography or a community.

    As much as I hate saying it: The immigration issue is not a nationalist issue – which would imply that it’s really an argument about “geographic relocation” and what that means for the two counties involved. The U.S. debate on immigration is, rather disgustingly in my opinion (and you know me well-enough Levi to know that it bugs the hell out of me to type something this cynical), rooted entirely in racism and xenophobia. And votes. We can’t forget the votes.

  5. Thanks for the comments, Tara
    Thanks for the comments, Tara. About Roger Casement an Irish nationalism — well, yeah, there is this tremendous irony that, for various national heroes around the world in the last 200 years, including also the likes of Simon Bolivar and Guiseppe Giribaldi and so many others, nationalism was a movement of liberation. This is also consistent with TKG’s comment above — if you live under the oppression of royal or colonial or imperial rule, nationalism is a big step up for you.

    However, again, that doesn’t mean nationalism is a sustainable system for the world’s future. I don’t think it is. It merely means that in many cases nationalism replaced an earlier system that was even more oppressive, and thus many great historical nationalists are now considered heroes.

    Tara, I think I agree with everything you say. Yes, the immigration issue is about much, much more than nationalism. It touches on deep emotional and cultural issues (not to mention economic issues) that do not involve nationalism. Still, though, from a legal point of view, the idea of immigration reform encompasses the question of citizenship, and the very concept of citizenship (as Simon Schama showed in his book about the French Revolution, “Citizens”) is closely tied to the concept of the nation. That’s why I think it’s worth considering the question of immigration in this light.

  6. Whether we see it as clearly
    Whether we see it as clearly as a love for our ancestry, i.e. the roots of our past, or simply the love we have for our own country, nationalism is a powerful presence throughout the world. This is certainly not a grand thing to be, imho, but it has been, currently is and will continue being a presence in our lives.

    The only diminishing character of nationalism is multiculturalism. Take a couple from two different cultures, two different pasts, two different languages that their relatives spoke and when these two people have children, it is those offspring who find their parents roots to be not as important to them as they are with those parents. Multiply that with those same children growing up with multiculturalism in their lives and ending up marrying still another mixed racial loved ones and one can see how diluted the racial or cultural past becomes. Of course we still have these multicultural offspring adopting to the overall culture they themselves and their peers create.

    Would not this be another type of Nationalism where despite the racial makeup or religious indoctrination, the mere fact that they are living in this (or any other) country have the same effect where they would defend their way of life under a mutually agreed upon commonality which would be called “Nationalism”? Methinks so.

  7. Bill, many people found this
    Bill, many people find this strange when they first hear it, but it’s a simple fact. Check Wikipedia, or any other source. It’s not even a matter of dispute among historians.

    What is the primary governing structure of any society? Before the French and American revolutions, royalty and nobility provided the primary governing structure nearly everywhere in the world. Below the royal and noble classes were typically the mercantile and peasant classes. The royal and noble classes were loyal to their kingdoms, not to their nations. The mercantile and peasant classes, who were typically far removed from the business of government, were typically loyal to their landowners or employers, or to their churches, but they were not encouraged to think of themselves as citizens. The original idea of nationalism was a progressive one — it was the idea that all people of a nation have an equal stake in the well-being of that nation. This idea spread rapidly through Europe and the world after the American and French revolutions, embodied by bold heroes like George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte, who were both immensely famous during their lives. By the middle of the 19th century, Napoleonic nationalism had become the norm all over the world — it far outlived the Napoleonic empire — and it remains the norm all over the world today.

  8. “It merely means that in many
    “It merely means that in many cases nationalism replaced an earlier system that was even more oppressive, and thus many great historical nationalists are now considered heroes.”

    Man is a social being, and try to create, or join, communities to satisfy his desire of sociality, and to improve his life by means of receiving and giving support to the other appartnents of the same community.

    Many years ago, it was the oldest man of the village deciding what a fellow could do or not, if he could live into the community of the village, if he had to pay “taxes” (hours of work for the collective good), if he was a good fellow or a criminal, if he could build a tent inside the village; then it became the feudal lord or the Council, the king and finally the state. This is also matched by the level of communications available to the fellows to be in contact with the life of their community: when the only means of trasportation was walking, the world was the village; with horses and carriages, the county, ducate, kingdom; with the real time communications, the state.

    In my opinion now nationalism is on the top in our days just because the state is the level of community that now assumed most importance in the life of humans: while thousands years ago the prosperity was defined by the prosperity of the village’s harvest, now is defined by state GDP; war was declared against the next village, now against the next state, because now we identify our situation with that of the state where we are living; also freedom is limited by the statal laws, and it is against the state that we protest when we are unhappy with our rights, no more against the old chief of the village. For sure we are still happy when the soccer (or football) team of our city wins against the neighbors, but this is just how much importance we give to our city vs. the next one.

    If in a distant future human race will colonize other planets, I bet humans will move from “nationalism” to “planetism”.

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