On Nationalism : a scientific approach

As I write to you this morning, people across the world are waking up to the news of another defeat inflicted by and large on behalf of Nationalism/Nationalistic short-sighted approaches.

The Italian referendum, which did not allow PM Matteo Renzi to centralize more powers on its government hoping thus to diminish within the process the role of the Upper House/Senate proved to be another turning point on the political agenda of an already tumultuous unprecedented year.

As it happened, Brexit and Donald Trump’s election in the US rallied people worldwide on the idea that the Establishment failed them or neglected them to the extent of obliteration.

The notion of centre-right/left governments made famous by politicians such as Gerhard Schroeder in Germany or Tony Blair in the UK (they themselves followers of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher’s neoliberalism) did not find stable grounds on the more actual personae of David Cameron, Renzi or even Hillary Clinton in the US. The people around this countries did not budge any longer to long-preserved and protected ideas such as free-trade, globalization or freedom of movement, but rather turned inwards and tried to grasp local alternatives to external influences.

I wish to provide the honourable reader in the following passages a clear and comprehensive depiction on the movement of nationalism from its inception to a more recent version of it.

It is important before we start to distinguish clearly between “nation”, “nationalism” and “ethnicity”, concepts which have a significant relevance when dealing with the present subject.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a nation is “an extensive aggregate of persons, so closely associated with each other by common descent, language or history, as to form a distinct race or people, usually organized as a separate political state and occupying a definite territory”.

Thus, the concept of nation hovers around three poles:

Society: people living together, communicating and sharing the same socioeconomic and political conditions.

Culture: people sharing the same language, social habits and historical memories.

Race: people sharing the same descent and having passed on a shared culture through a filiation of generations.

As you can see, the concept itself is rather slippery and elusive and I am sure it already rises eyebrows. Bear in mind, nevertheless, that the content has attracted throughout the years inscrutable forms. Let us now turn to “nationalism”.

Joep Leerssen, Professor of Imagology at the University of Amsterdam, uses the word “Nationalism” on a combination of three assumptions:

  1. “That the nation is the most natural, organic collective aggregate of humans, and the most natural and organic subdivision of humanity; and that, as such, the nation’s claim to loyalty overrides all other allegiances.
  2. That the state derives its mandate and sovereignty from its incorporation of a constituent nation so that civic loyalty to the state is a natural extension of national (cultural, linguistic, ethnic) solidarity.
  3. That territorially and socio-politically, the most natural and organic division of humankind into states runs along national lines, so that ideally there is a seamless overlap between the outlines of the state and of its constituent nation.”

Leerssen also considers that Nationalism emanates from the way people view and the describe the world, “that is, as a cultural phenomenon taking shape in the constant back and forth between material and political developments on the one hand, and intellectual and poetical reflection and articulation on the other”.

Last but not least, the concept of “ethnicity” implies that “what matters in group’s identity is not any objective perceived similarities or differences, but rather a subjective approach of these items. That is group’s acknowledgment of a shared self-image and the willingness to consider it meaningful”.

Let us remember that these terms are only hard samples of a would-be contextualized approach. Time and again, notions such as “nationalism” have become to signify so broad an area that today it is almost impossible to pinpoint or clearly identify its meaning.

Allow me though to move from a technical view of the subject to a more mundane one. Nationalism and its immediate close terms were not solely the subject of hardliner dictionary and grammar geeks, butthey also belonged to vast number of literaturepoets and writers.

Writing on the verge of the Second World War, George Orwell, the famous English novelist and BBC broadcaster depicted carefully and explicitly the consequences of a deep-rooted nationalism, in which he saw the incorrigible behaviour of a people unwilling to restore a contextually state of things. Books such as 1984 stand proof on that.

Other writers viewed nationalism as “a condition of the mind, feeling or sentiment of a group of people living in a well-defined geographical area, speaking a common language, possessing a literature in which the aspirations of the nation have been expressed, being attached to common traditions, and in some cases, having a common religion”. Snyder.

By this definition we can somehow visualise the similarities through which the concept tries to make its living. The close up marks only a general localization of the term and can be openly subject to criticism and even refute.

Discoursing on the “Feeling of Nationality”, John Stuart Mill distinguishes some of the causes generated by it. “Sometimes it is the effect of identity of race and descent. Community of language, and community of religion greatly contribute to it. Geographical limits are one of its causes. But the strongest of all is identity of political antecedents; the possession of a national history, and consequent community of recollections; collective pride and humiliation; pleasure and regret connected with the same incidents in the past”.

Identity of language, literature and, to a certain extent, of race and recollection have maintained the feeling of nationality in considerable strength among the different portions of the European people. Where the sentiment of nationality exists, there is a prima-facie case for uniting all the numbers of the nationality under the same government, and the government ought to be decided by its citizens alone.

When examining Lord Acton’s Nationality approach, one of the main themes centred on it is the concept of “absolutism”, or how not to turn a state into this last kind of solution. “Tackling the uninterrupted fusion between inferior races and intellectually superior races, exhausted and decaying nations and vitalised ones, this combination of different nations in one state is as necessary a condition of civilised life as the combination of men in society. The fertilising and regenerating process can only be obtained by living under one government. It is in the cauldron of the state that the fusion takes place by which the vigour, the knowledge, and the capacity of one portion of mankind may be communicated to another”.

Lord Acton stresses the importance of inter-merging and argues that the greatest adversary of the rights of nationality is the modern theory of nationality. The author is aware of the danger of absolutism in one nation and affirms that “by making the state and the nation combine with each other in theory, it reduces practically to a subject condition all other nationalities that may exist within the boundaries. It cannot admit them to an equality with the ruling nation, which would be a contradiction of the principle of its existence. According, therefore, to the degree of humanity and civilization in that dominant body which claims all the rights of the community, the minority groups are reduced to servitude or outlawed, or put in a condition of dependence”.

Those states in which no mixture of races has occurred are imperfect; and those in which its effects have disappeared are decrepit. A state which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a state which labours to neutralise, to absorb or expel them, destroys its own vitality; a state which does not include them is destitute of the chief basis of self-government. The modern theory of nationality, therefore, is a retrograde step in history. It is the most advanced form of the revolution, and must retain its power to the end of the revolutionary period of which it announces the approach.

Proceeding with the examination we find Ernest Renan and his astonishing “Qu’est-ce qu’un nation”? According to the French scholar, it is not race, religion, language, state, civilization or economic interests that make up a nation. “Common experiences, especially a heroic past, great leaders and true glory lead to the formation of a community of will. Common grief, even more than triumphs, binds a people together”.

In Renan’s view, the concept of a nation is used as a metaphor through the language of a soul, a spiritual principle. In it, he recognizes two basic principles of a nation: “one is the past, the other is the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of remembrances; the other is the actual consent, the desire to live together, the will to continue to treasure the heritage which all hold in common. The nation is the end product of a long period of work, sacrifice and devotion”.

The worship of ancestors is reasonably understandable since our ancestors have made us what we are. A heroic past of great men, of glory, that is the social principle on which the national idea resists. To have common glories in the past, a common will in the present; to have accomplished great things together, to wish to do so again, that is the essential condition for being a nation.


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