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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part One. Nationalism as a political program

Chapter nine. Political alternatives to nationalism

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1We have reviewed the typical political arguments for nationalism. It is time for a provisional conclusion before we move on to the cultural arguments. The realities of nationalist conflicts usually take the following dialectical form (which we have already encountered and discussed in terms of the so-called homeopathic justification of nationalism). A large ethno-cultural group, call it A, starts building an ethno-culturally based political unit. In doing this it uses typical nationalist reasons, justifications, and methods. This annoys another group, B, situated at least partly on the same territory. The B group responds to A-centered nationalism with its own B-centered nationalism. The claims of B seem justified in terms of group and individual self-defense against the backdrop of A-centered nationalism. But there might also be a minority C within the B region, which will resent B-centered nationalism, the same way the B people resent that of the A group. A straightforwardly catastrophic result of this escalation would be a war between A and B. A more civilized solution is a compromise: both groups engage in some kind of political institutionalizing of their group identities. The A majority goes for a ‘soft’ nation building, granting to the B group substantial group rights: it lessens its pressure, accepts the speaking of B language on predominantly B territory, does not cut the territory so as to deprive B members of a majority in their own homeland, allows or even sponsors schools and public media in the B language, and grants a measure of home rule for the B group. A compromise solution has to be implemented.

2As already mentioned, one has to distinguish at least between traditional nation-states which might wish to either retain or renounce a part of their sovereignty to transnational bodies (say, France and Germany in relation to the EU), relatively new nation-states (Slovenia, Croatia), aspiring groups (Kurds) which are in dire need, and finally, less urgent candidates (Flemish, Quebecois). Given the difficulty of situations like that of the Kurds, one would do well to heed their demands for security and survival by whatever means; there is no time to work out sophisticated alternatives. For every other type a search is in order, without guarantee that a single solution would be best for all. Still, we may identify some general constraints upon alternatives that result from our discussion of nationalism.

3In discussing the argument from self-defense we implicitly relied upon a number of constraints that should govern any such solution. First, people normally prefer to identify themselves with what they see as positive traits (this is part of the understandable optimism of our inner make-up); it is a rather tragic fate to have to identify with a trait one finds worthless or despicable. Secondly, if a certain non-voluntary trait obviously and persistently plays a significant role in one’s life, it is impossible not to acknowledge it as one’s own, not to accept its consequences for oneself, and in this sense not to identify with it. Thirdly, actual belonging to a given category (prominently race, gender, ethnic origin) is often non-voluntary. If such belonging is at the same time socially devalued and treated as a significant negative trait of the person bearing it, the person will most often be forced to identify with it and bear the consequences; at worst, the person will internalize the social judgment and find the trait worthless or despicable themselves. This links the compromise project with issues of dignity and recognition, that is, with the demand that belonging to a given category should not clash with a person’s self-respect. Non-voluntary belonging should be socially recognized and not devalued. At the minimum, one should not unjustifiably be put in a position of having to be ashamed of one’s objective belonging to a given social category, that is, one should be enabled to carry the trait in question with dignity. At a more than minimal level, one should be able to cherish, care for, and develop the elements of one’s belonging if one chooses to, provided the identification does not clash with general moral requirements. Equally, one should be free not to identify with such a belonging, to take it as an accidental and limiting trait, without incurring any negative political consequences. The minimal requirement is non-discrimination, which basically has to do with the value of equality. The more than minimal desideratum concerns opportunities to develop one’s identifications in a free and spontaneous manner (both in the positive direction of acceptance of what is given or negative in the sense of the right to exit) and derives from the value of liberty. The compromise, if successful, will uphold these liberal values.

4Any compromise solution respecting the principles listed is already an important alternative to classical nationalism, and a counterexample to the claim that the borders of a state should coincide with the borders of the ethno-nation or of a ‘culture’. Contemporary liberal-democratic states, however, go much further. Let me use the description of Will Kymlicka, who is sympathetic to nationalism, and certainly cannot be accused of a bias against it. In his analysis there are at least nine points that characterize liberal nation building (Kymlicka, 1999, 40-45) all resulting in a kind of multicultural compromise. Note, however, that the term ‘nation building’ in his parlance has a meaning slightly different from the usual: it does not refer so much to state building, but rather focuses on the building of sub-statist institutions within a multinational democracy, with one majoritarian nation. There is a majoritarian nation building (say, the British one in the UK), as well as the minoritarian one (say, Scottish in the same case) within the state. Since Kymlicka himself speaks of a ‘thin’ nation building, meaning the building of a nation in a ‘thin’ sense (see chapter eight), I will use his expression and speak of ‘thin nation building’, implying that it is a liberal way of building institutional arrangements and thereby a society. Here are the main differences between such a process and the illiberal building of a nation in a ‘thick’ sense.

5First, the level of coercion used to promote a common national identity is low: “Liberal states impose fewer penalties or disadvantages on those who remain outside the dominant national group.” Secondly, liberal states have a more restricted conception of the public space within which the majoritarian national identity can be expressed. Thirdly, they allow propaganda against nation building, and even tolerate propaganda for secession. Fourthly, they have a definition of membership of the nation that is not restricted to those of a particular race, ethnicity, or religion. Fifthly, national identity reduces to a very thin notion; in order to acquire one, the candidate just has to learn the language, participate in common public institutions, and perhaps express a commitment to the long-term survival of this thin-national community. It is not the community of custom or ethnicity, just of language and institutions. Sixthly, the value of nation is strictly instrumental, to be measured by the goods it provides for the individual. Nations are means for an individual’s flourishing. Seventhly, “national cultures become more ‘cosmopolitan’”. Eighthly, liberal nations are inclusive, all the way to admitting dual loyalties and dual citizenship. Ninthly, liberal states publicly recognize “those national minorities which consistently and democratically insist upon their national distinctiveness”. Taken together, these points delineate a kind of multicultural compromise which is nowadays a rather widespread solution to nationalist conflicts, perhaps the most viable one in situations of nationalist tension. The resulting state is, by supposition, a liberal-democratic state.

6The model proposed certainly clashes with classical nationalist views. Consider the ‘thinning’ advocated in the nine points. Start from the ‘thin’ idea of national identity: it retains only the language from the classical nationalist arsenal. Note, however, that in virtue of the instrumentalist approach (from point six) even this feature is to be appreciated only for its practical value or for the sentimental value it has for some members of the culture. The rest of the ‘thick’ conception is gone: no purity of culture, no obligation to uphold common traditional customs, no specific set of national values to uphold. With the introduction of a ‘more cosmopolitan’ culture the last remnants of the traditional image are gone. Traditionally, one of the main functions of the nation-state is to promote the given ethno-national culture in its rich, thick, and allegedly pure form, far beyond the mere preservation of a language. Here, by contrast, we have a principled cosmopolitan opening towards other cultures, coupled with tolerance for diverse customs and religions, allowing one to become a member of a majoritarian ‘thin’ nation (say, English) in spite of retaining quite atypical traditional beliefs from a completely different culture (say, Shiite Muslim). The resulting project is merely a combination of linguistic belonging and institutional loyalty.

7Let me explain. The citizen of a given state will typically belong either to the minority or to the majority group (sub-statal ‘nation’). His or her belonging will rest upon three tiers: first, the language he or she speaks, and only language will tend to put him or her into one of the groups. Once his or her linguistic belonging is determined (probably by early socialization, but in the case of an emigrant, simply by mastering a language), he or she is ready for the second tier, that is, participation in sub-statal institutions of his or her group. For instance, he or she can be a linguistic Catalan, loyal to the ‘Generalität’, the provincial government of Catalonia. Finally, he or she also accepts the institutions of the central state, in this case, Spain. The first tier accounts for a kind of linguistic patriotism, the next two for an institution-centered, constitutional one. The resulting attitude is a hybrid ‘linguistic-constitutional patriotism’.

8Strangely enough, Kymlicka himself sometimes likes to describe the project as “liberal nationalist”. However, one wonders whether the label of ‘nationalism’ applied to such a linguistic-constitutional compromise is any more than empty rhetoric. Of course, everyone has a right to call his or her view ‘nationalist’, but the continuity with what have been the paradigmatic nationalisms in the West seems to be lost in the new picture. (Kymlicka apparently accepts that one should grant thin national rights on non-nationalistic grounds, such as the democratic will of the people and the like. A detailed discussion of his interesting and original view would demand much more space than we can allow it here, however.)

9Since our main interest is in viable alternatives to nationalism, we have to go further and explore the possibilities of making the project still less tied to ethno-national belonging. The project is multiculturalist, but of what sort? In order to gain a proper perspective, we need a finer distinction. A multi-ethnic state can be ‘multicultural’ in various ways, depending on its stance towards the diversity of cultures it encompasses. It can passively tolerate a plurality of mutually isolated cultures (like the ‘millet’ system in the Ottoman Empire), or even actively promote their isolation, by passing restrictive laws (children of A parents must go to A schools, the state-sponsored media should be monolingual in each particular region, and so on). Alternatively, it can passively tolerate intercultural penetrations, or even encourage them (A children should learn the rudiments of the B language in school, and vice versa, multilingual media should be encouraged and perhaps financed). Let me set aside the options in which the state is passive, since we are interested in what values should be actively promoted, not just tolerated. This leaves two options. Call the option in which various communities interact with the blessing and support of the state ‘open multiculturalism’, and the model in which they are isolated from each other, also with the blessing of the state, ‘closed multiculturalism’.

10What direction should a viable alternative to nationalism take? Remember that one of its important functions is preventing aggressive nationalist outbursts. Such multiculturalist prevention must rely upon the existence of some sort of understanding between ethnically and culturally diverse groups. This is not unrealistic. After all, in most contemporary liberal democracies ordinary people of different ethnic backgrounds live together, interact closely, and occasionally intensely, without spo²ntaneously and insistently demanding to be separated. Such cohabitation diminishes the natural fear and suspicion of what is ‘foreign’. Fear and suspicion are the prime movers of mutual distrust. Also, it teaches individuals to recognize the common humanity under the guise of variation and difference; recognition that is itself of intrinsic moral value. The very fact of cohabitation is a good to be upheld, so the state should secure a stable and enduring framework for it. The winning option then is open multiculturalism. Rather than interpreting it as a limited nation-state, one could see it as embodying a step towards the dissolution of such a state. The majority nationalists would certainly see it as such, as would the minority separatists. They would condemn the ‘corruption’ of pure ethno-national cultures. Multicultural cohabitation goes against their claim that normal life is impossible unless one is a member of one’s own national state.

11What is the moral status of this fact? I submit that it is positive, for the following reasons: first, it diminishes the natural fear and suspicion of what is ‘foreign’ to one. The very fact of cohabitation is a good to be upheld, contrary to what is often implied in the pro-nationalist apologies of secession which create the impression of a permanent state of alert: various national communities are depicted as constantly ‘celebrating their diversity’ and potentially or actually demanding a sovereign state; those which do not are implicitly depicted as being not sufficiently self-conscious. Outbursts of minority demands for separation are not spontaneous expressions of a permanent and natural yearning, but most often the result of the failure of the majority to provide genuinely equal conditions for the members of the minority, and of estrangement due to this imposed, unwilled isolation of the minority.

12Let me end this chapter with a further widening of our theme. Contemporary liberal-democratic states tend to enter wider alliances. If our compromise model-state is situated in Western Europe (imagine that it is, for instance, Spain) it will also be a member of the European Union. Its borders will be open to the citizens of other member states; its economic policies will partly depend on the economic situation of the larger whole; its linguistic policies will have to take into account the needs of communication within the same larger whole; and so on. Besides accepting international jurisdiction in respect of basic principles like human rights, it might also accept it in much more specific issues.

13What about the threat of globalization, our nationalist might ask? Global threats demand a global response. Unless states are well coordinated, they will never be able to deal with emergencies affecting the global market, for instance. Coordination leads to extended cooperation and interdependence, and might finally point in a truly cosmopolitan direction (for more on this see Held, 1995).

14If, on the other hand, our model-state is situated somewhere in the East, from Eastern Europe to Asia, it will have a different but analogous motivation for opening up. Here minorities typically have their kin-states, often bordering the majority state. In situations of tension the mechanisms of mistrust tend to shift into top gear: the minority is seen as disloyal to the majority state and as supporting its kin-state (for instance, Kosovar Albanians are seen by Serbs as supporting Albania against Serbia). The minority responds by distrusting its majoritarian compatriots and the state, and is consequently forced to rely on its kin-state: the self-fulfilling prophecy that members of the minority will become traitors is thus taken to justify the distrustful majority. Unless such a spiraling of distrust is prevented, our model-state is doomed to failure. The obvious path is inter-regional cooperation, with minorities acting as a bridge between their host-state and their kin-state, and being also perceived and recognized in such a mediating role. The final result would then hopefully be analogous to the development described in the preceding paragraph. The state building in the model depends for its success on softening the borders between states, on recognizing regional interdependencies and multiple loyalties—solidarities.

15Viewed in the proper context of international interdependence, alliances, and limits on sovereignty, the policy proposed in the model looks more like nation deconstructing than nation building. Not only is the internal boundary between the institutional affirmation of a particular national culture and the setting of a neutral pluralist framework in practice being blurred, but the external frontier defining the nation as a unit is becoming more and more open.

16Of course, this is just a very rough sketch. It is not meant as more than a reminder of various alternatives to nationalist proposals, which have been worked out and to some extent tested, as well as those that have yet to be worked out.

17Let us briefly mention the matters of principle. What is the proper moral underpinning of such a compromise multicultural state and a prospective system of similar states? It cannot reside in exclusive affirmation of any particular ethno-national identity. Of course, a pragmatic nationalist might try to have it both ways: he might claim that the proper moral value resides in such an affirmation, whereas the moderate, compromise-oriented framework is valuable only insofar as it permits such an affirmation. But this is compatible with neither the international framework nor the spirit of compromise: for a serious nationalist who believes that only the exclusive affirmation of national identity has a moral value in politics, the compromise is unacceptable anyway, except as a temporary modus vivendi. The serious justification of open multiculturalism must appeal to values of conviviality and mutual understanding, which go beyond ethnic ties, as far as the ultimate ground that makes the compromise morally worthy is concerned. The only viewpoint from which such an ultimate justification is to be undertaken is itself substantially universalist.

18It seems that the dialectics of the debate has led us towards a more cosmopolitan solution, which is still respectful of group belonging. The nationalist will question the viability of any such model. Most pro-nationalist theoreticians are aware that the battle is not to be won on narrowly political ground. In recent times the tide has been turning towards cultural matters; the best authors build their case for nationalism upon culture-oriented arguments. In their view, the morality of self-determination, the right and duty to create one’s own state, depend upon the value of national culture. To this central group of arguments we now turn.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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