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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter eight. Does nationalism support liberal-democratic values?

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  • 1 I rely on Kymlicka’s excellent presentation of this cluster of claims in his lectures at the Centr (...)

1Let us now pass to the morally most important claims, concerning the liberal-democratic credentials of nationalism. They center around the idea that nationalism is successful in helping to promote basic liberal-democratic values.1 Here is the nationalist’s line.

2The critics of nationalist ties sometimes think that they are a lamentable phenomenon, to be checked and controlled by liberal-democratic institutions. An ad hoc liberal-nationalist compromise is therefore a possibility, maybe an expedient one, but it is certainly not the best option for the liberal democrat. In contrast to this picture of nationalism as a danger to be kept under control, I want to suggest a very different metaphor: nationalist sentiment as a source of energy that can be harnessed for liberal-democratic aims—a ‘battery’, to use M. Canovan’s metaphor. I want moreover to point out that it is perhaps the only such source available at the present time, and the liberal democrat would do well to use it. Let me start by assuming that the central liberal-democratic values are social justice, democracy, and freedom.

3Let us take justice first. Liberal justice requires at a minimum some equality of opportunity, and is usually also taken to include a degree of protection for the welfare of the worst-off citizens. The implementation of these sub-goals requires several conditions. One of the most important is a degree of solidarity: the better-off members of society are required to accept principles and practices of redistribution that take away some of their wealth and channel it towards satisfying the needs of the poor. Human solidarity is a limited resource, especially durable solidarity with more distant human beings, not personally known nor in any simple way related to the person exercising such solidarity. “We are experiencing these days a weakening of civic ties”, writes Schnapper (1994, 11 [my translation]). There is an elegant way for the liberal democrat to solve this problem, one which has proved itself in the recent past: ethno-national solidarity is a powerful motive for more egalitarian distribution of wealth. The British philosopher D. Miller argues that the functioning of the welfare state presupposes that its “members recognize such obligations of justice to one another”, and that “national communities are indeed of this kind” (Miller, 1995, 93). He is joined in these matters by his colleagues N. McCormick, K. Nielsen, and, to some extent, R. Rorty, who in his recent book Achieving Our Nation enjoins the Left to take the path of national(istic) solidarity. In short, nation-states centered around particular communities of language offer a promise of a more just society, and should appeal to leftist liberals, not just to more conservative and traditionalist liberals.

4This liberal-democratic potential of nationalism seems to bear testimony to the existence of a close link between love of nation and love of justice. Montesquieu famously identified the love of one’s country with the love of its just laws; his insight was prophetic, and is of the utmost importance for contemporary politics.

5Nationalism serves democracy as well. To start with, it is itself democratic. As J. Couture puts it, her liberal nationalism:

sees the nation as forming a society committed to the freedoms and rights characteristically granted in liberal constitutional democracies and affording all its members equal democratic rights and freedoms. What is nationalist in liberal nationalism is that it sees such a liberal society as a society whose members are sharing—or wanting to share—in a common culture, language, history, self-perception, institutions, and some collective projects for their society, including the project to secure (or to gain) political sovereignty. (Couture, 2000, 263)

6Even the minimal effort needed for the functioning of democracy—the effort required in casting one’s vote—requires some motivation. The feeling of belonging to a community guarantees such a motivation. A minimally successful democracy also demands a measure of trust: when my party loses, I have to trust that the new winners will play by the rules; otherwise, it would be more rational to break the rules first and simply refuse to turn over power. Trust, however, is a relatively rare commodity (like solidarity).

7Trust in co-nationals is a well-documented phenomenon. Trust is equally important for the functioning of a richer sort of democracy, one based upon the common deliberation of citizens. Again, you have to conduct the deliberation in a particular language: language barriers are barriers to democratic deliberation. They might not be insurmountable, but they exercise considerable pressure upon the extent and quality of deliberation.

8Finally, national belonging is important for democratic freedom, and for two reasons: first, it provides the context of choice in the form of a repertory of meaningful options; secondly, it secures vital self-respect. As regards the first, a rich national culture should offer various traditions and patterns of life which its members know first-hand and understand from within. This palette of possibilities is an essential prerequisite for free choice, since in its absence there are no meaningful, fully understood options from which a citizen can choose. The second reason has to do with our need for recognition: being recognized as a member of a nation is essential for individual self-respect. Equally, if one is discriminated against because of one’s national belonging the result is especially dramatic, since national belonging has such a wide range of consequences and ramifications.

9In conclusion, let me return to the metaphor of the energy source. We have seen that nationalism has served liberal-democratic purposes well. There might be other sources, but why not trust the one that has proved reliable in the past? It is not wise to throw the battery away before you are certain there are alternative energy sources. End of the nationalist’s case.


10How should we assess the battery metaphor? There is an element of truth in it: nationalism does energize its followers. The issue is: in what direction? To start with, some of the most energetic nationalisms have been authoritarian, or straightforwardly fascist. Indeed, nationalism has sometimes been the only source of energy for otherwise completely intolerable regimes and arrangements: without nationalism, Milosevic would not have had a chance of taking power in Serbia. A more balanced conclusion would be that nationalism does provide a source of energy, but a very dangerous one. It is more like a nuclear reactor than a battery, and nationalist Chernobyls have been many and varied. Worse, by seriously deploying the metaphor the nationalist almost explicitly admits that there is nothing inherently liberal-democratic about nationalism: it supplies the force, whereas the direction of the movement is determined by other factors. To stay with the notion’s most prominent proponents, neither Miller nor Kymlicka are prepared to admit this; in their eyes, nationalism is intrinsically liberal-democratic. But they owe us a serious account of why it is so easy to harness nationalist energy for authoritarian purposes, something which in their view should be contrary to its natural course (not to say its very essence, since Kymlicka refuses to believe that there is an essence of nationalism). The issue can be made even more dramatic. Suppose one argued that harnessing nationalism for liberal purposes has often been at best a half success: liberal ideals have often got lost in the turmoil of nationalist conflicts. (And important victories of democratic liberal solidarity and justice have been won by somewhat leftist, non-nationalist movements, and in situations in which a nationalistic agenda did not occupy center stage.) One may continue by showing that harnessing them for authoritarian purposes has been historically much easier. Authoritarian political programs usually did not lose anything by being aligned with nationalism—on the contrary, they only gained in impetus. In short, nationalism mixes better with authoritarianism than with liberal democratic principles. I am not claiming that I can present such an argument in any detail, only that it seems plausible in its general outlines.

11Let me illustrate. Does a love of one’s people and country lead to social solidarity and encourage a more egalitarian distribution, as Miller, McCormick, and Nielsen would have it? Here is a rough test: if nationalism leads to egalitarianism, then the more radically nationalist a political system is, the more egalitarian it should be, and the more solidarity it should produce. Take the extreme Right and radically nationalist fascist regimes: were they egalitarian and did they foster genuine social solidarity? Not at all; they offer the disgusting show of rich and all-powerful elites, wallowing in wealth, while millions of people suffer the utmost deprivation. Not only this: such regimes have sought to destroy the very tissue of social solidarity wherever they have come to power. To turn to the next test, in communist countries egalitarianism was preached, if not practiced, so people were well acquainted with its principles. The question is, are the newly formed post-socialist states in which nationalists have gained power conspicuous for their solidarity, equality, and social justice? On the contrary, in these countries nationalism provides merely a smoke screen for a very unjust redistribution of wealth. Take again the example of extreme nationalism in the former Yugoslav countries: this was accompanied by extreme social injustice. As T. Garton Ash puts it in the article quoted in chapter seven: “[a] few people have grown rich, mainly war profiteers, gangsters and politicians—the three being sometimes hard to distinguish” (Garton Ash, 1999). Almost everybody else became dramatically worse off than before the nationalist outbreaks.

12Why is this so? There is no direct link between nationalism and greed, so whence the correlation? My modest proposal is that the link is indirect: by overstressing just one narrow set of goals—those having to do with ethno-national independence— and by legitimizing rather extreme means, nationalism, once it has been enthusiastically accepted, makes the general public dramatically insensitive to most other social issues. In some post-socialist countries large minorities have been routinely deprived of their citizen’s rights in order to secure the space for nationalist policies accepted by the majority. I would expect that such massive injustice on nationalistic grounds numbs the sense of justice and of social solidarity: if you can expel all Serbs from a school, or deny all Russians in the town the right to vote, or deny Albanian women in Kosovo the right to health-care, why bother about seemingly minor infringements of civil rights within the ethnic community?

13As far as the elites are concerned, in contrast to the general public, one might surmise that they are from the outset to a large extent motivated by the wish to attain scarce positional goods. Such a motivation does not prepare one well for the exercise of solidarity. The countries in question have ended up with a combination of a desensitized general public and cynical elites. Once social solidarity goes overboard, the space is clear for introducing dramatic inequalities and for plundering the country—as has apparently been happening in Albania, Serbia, and some former Soviet republics—under the aegis of national unity and pride.

14A similar argument can be developed about trust. Basing trust on ethno-national belonging implies allowing for, and perhaps even enjoining, distrust for those who do not belong to the same ethno-nation.

15The pro-nationalist thinker might retreat to a very thin conception of nationality, the way Kymlicka does in his ‘Western Political Theory and Ethnic Relations in Eastern Europe’ (to appear in a collection of papers published by Oxford University Press). Here is the picture he proposes. Western liberal democracies have gone for a ‘thin’ nation building. Typically, such democracies are multinational, with one majoritarian nation. The glue that holds the majoritarian nation together is the unity of language and institutions, not origin, customs, or religion. (This makes the relevant concept of nationality very thin.) The same should be valid, at least in the ideal case, for the minoritarian ‘nation’ within the state. Call a ‘nation’ in this sense a ‘thin-nation’. In this picture, solidarity and trust most strongly bind together members of each thin-nation, both minoritarian and majoritarian, and this is where the actual democratic process takes place. Central—for instance, federal—politics is conducted by elites and is less actively democratic. The origin of trust and solidarity is the feeling of belonging grounded mainly upon common language and thin national, not central—say, federal—institutions.

16A minor and theoretical problem for such a view is social-psychological: why would solidarity and trust reside specifically in this one combination of traits, language, and local institutions, and not in others, apparently equally attractive? Here is an illustration which Kymlicka presented at a lecture in Budapest. He described the feelings of active solidarity of an English-speaking middle-class Canadian (himself, in fact) with poor fishermen on the other side of Canada, as contrasted with a lack of solidarity with poor and unemployed former steel workers in neighboring US industrial towns. A Canadian fisherman is ‘one of us’, he claimed, while a US worker is not. I assume such a person might feel just as much solidarity with his compatriots who happen to be French-speaking, poor Quebecois fishermen. In that case, being ‘one of us’ is just being a Canadian citizen, not a member of the Quebecois ‘thin-nation’. Equally, since language is the only trait that remains from the ethno-national arsenal in the new picture, one should, on nationalistic grounds, expect the person to feel solidarity with the US workers, who speak the same language. If this does not happen, we must ask why. In short, it offers a telling example of a situation in which language and institutions point in opposite directions: language and linguistic belonging to the US, institutional belonging to Canada. Solidarity seems to go the institutional way—indeed, the way of belonging to federal, non-national institutions—against the prediction of the nationalist.

17A major practical problem is the distribution and balance of trust versus mistrust (as well as of solidarity vs. non-solidarity) within the same multicultural state. Remember that in our liberal-democratic nationalist’s picture trust is reserved for in-group members (that is, those belonging to the same cultural group or ‘thin-nation’, say Quebecois) and mistrust for all other groups within the same state (say, English-speaking Canadians). The same goes for solidarity. How is a liberal-democratic state politics to be conducted? Why do people vote for the central government, and why do they trust it? Would anyone, in this view, ever accept the central redistribution needed for a balanced welfare state? In Kymlicka’s official picture the problem is hidden behind the use of the phrase ‘nation building’: since the phrase otherwise commonly refers to the building of nation-states (for example, the UK, Canada, the US, Spain), one is apt to forget that in his use what is here being built are sub-state institutions of sub-state nations, both majoritarian and minoritarian (for example, Scottish, British, and Quebecois institutions). To switch to the British example, why, for instance, would Scots ever participate in the central institutions of the United Kingdom or express solidarity with British workers belonging to a different system of sub-state institutions? This presents a dilemma for the aspiring liberal-democratic nationalist. On the one hand, he can reserve trust and solidarity for one group to the exclusion of others (or at least assume a very unequal distribution of the two across the groups, say a lot of trust for fellow Scots, and very little for the English). In this case, the common state threatens to become ungovernable, at least on liberal-democratic principles. Instead of having a liberal-democratic multicultural state, he will have a non-state fragmented into isolated cultural communities, each aspiring ultimately to secede.

18This problem leads the aspiring liberal-democratic nationalist to the other horn of the dilemma. To illustrate this with a prominent example, it seems to be one motivating reason for D. Miller’s variant of the pro-nationalist argument: he proposes to take as the national unit just the nation-state, in his examples the ‘British nation’, as opposed to English and Scottish communities, which he refuses to dignify with the title of nation. This, however, makes his ‘nationalism’ a very cold and artificial one, at least in the usual nationalist view, since it seems to be based crucially upon common public institutions. Even worse, it risks becoming circular: common institutions are pictured as requiring antecedent trust and solidarity in order to function well; but where do these antecedent goods come from, if trust and solidarity are in their turn to be based upon institutions they are expected to establish and support? To reiterate, this is the advice characterizing the other horn of the dilemma: base trust and solidarity on the commonality of institutions. Then, any institutional arrangement based on general—that is, non-nationalistic principles of justice—will generate the required trust and solidarity, and the result has nothing nationalistic, not even nation-centered about it. Either one has distrust and lack of solidarity within a state, or one has trust and solidarity that go way beyond the boundaries of a narrowly defined nation, and require a redefinition of ‘nation’ in purely institutional, non-nationalist terms.

19Classical nationalism has famously avoided the dilemma by demanding that the boundaries of a state should coincide with the boundaries of a culture: all the Lavinians should live in one state. The soft, multicultural, liberal-democratic new nationalism has no such option. The dialectics of the debate seems to lead its advocates, if they want to remain serious liberal democrats, to embrace the second horn of the dilemma: tie trust and solidarity to institutions and common constitutional arrangements that have little or nothing to do with a nationalist agenda. But they should be more clear-sighted and view this as the first and most important step to a more flexible, perhaps ultimately cosmopolitan notion of citizenship.

20The arguments for the importance of national belonging for democratic freedom are hard to judge before embarking upon an extended review of the concepts of culture involved in the debate. Still, it should be noted that all meaningful, well-understood ways of life do not depend on tradition in the way the nationalist would have them do. To give an example, for thirty years successive generations of young people in various Western and Central European countries have followed a way of life determined by participation in a pop culture totally unrelated to any national tradition of their own: do the Beatles or the Rolling Stones belong to the national cultures of Germany, Hungary, or Croatia? If the nationalist says no, I agree with him, but then he must accept that the choice of pop culture is meaningful for generations of young people, well understood by them, and a way of life from outside the national culture (as is the way of life of a computer geek or of a local Buddhist in Berlin or Ljubljana). Alternatively, the nationalist can accept the consequences and agree that, in his sense, both the music of the Beatles and Buddhism are part of, say, Croatian national culture. But if the Beatles and Buddhism qualify, everything does.

21As far as self-respect goes, the argument is partly question-begging: people resent being despised for their national belonging because life is, in many states, organized around national belonging; their sensitivity might be a reason not to organize it that way. Given that many countries are organized around national belonging, one wise policy would be two-pronged: first, to protect each individual’s national belonging from immediate threats, and secondly, to lower the level of importance of national belonging. This is the policy that has been applied to races in the West: one makes certain that, say, Asians are not despised for their race, but at the same time one refuses to organize the life of the nation around racial belonging.

22Here is a question that has been somewhat neglected by political scientists, and which is directly relevant to the issue of the link between nationalism and democracy. One of the distinctive features which separate nationalism from its universalistic competitors (say, liberalism or socialism) are two principles of priority. First, the issue of belonging—that is, who belongs to a given community—is politically more important than that of the manner in which the community is being governed (that is, the issue of its political constitution). Secondly, non-voluntary belonging is essential in contrast to the chosen, voluntary kind. In which situation is it rational to accept this order of business, rather than the reverse? Consider the first principle. Imagine a large, mixed community encompassing three ethnic groups A, B, and C. Concentrate upon so-called positional goods, for example, social and economic status. Positional goods are in principle scarce (if James is first, Steve cannot be first as well). Therefore, members of each group may always be tempted to create a situation in which their own ethnic state would offer positional goods for them only, in quantities not available within the larger community (this kind of analysis was famously proposed by C. Hardin [1985]). The temptation for the members of group A will typically increase in the following situations: a general decline in standards of living encourages individuals to try to climb the social ladder in order to compensate their losses. (This condition was satisfied in the former Yugoslavia after the death of Tito when a general economic crisis brought economic growth to a halt.) Next, due to better initial endowments, the members of groups B and C have more chance of succeeding in the situation of unlimited competition. (It can be argued that this was the situation with Slovenia and Croatia in relation to Serbia in the 1980s: they were economically better positioned and poised for victory in economic competition.) Finally, the condition for winning at the expense of B and C is to deny them access to the political mechanisms of government. (Again, Serbia had better control of the army, the police, and the state administration.) In short, a decision in favor of nationalism and of two priorities (belonging over the constitution, and non-voluntary belonging over the voluntary kind) might become rational—at least in the short term—in situations in which the struggle for change in the internal constitution promises fewer benefits to the group in question than a restructuring (enlargement or narrowing down) of the limits of community. (In the case of Serbia, Milosevic played the card of demographic spread—all Serbs should live in one state—and of control of the army, and won the hearts of his electorate.) This kind of analysis, if correct, would show that nationalism has intrinsically little to do with democracy, which is more concerned with the (internal) constitution of a community than with the external limits of belonging (its relevance can be extended to these issues as well, but it is not the primary topic of democratic concern). I am not claiming that the analysis is correct (although it is my favorite option), but only that it is plausible. Unless the nationalist has a better one, he should not assume that his stance is particularly democratic: on the contrary.


1 I rely on Kymlicka’s excellent presentation of this cluster of claims in his lectures at the Central European University, February 2000.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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