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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Three. Conclusion

Chapter nineteen. Why nationalism might be immoral

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1Our discussion of the morality of nationalism has had two prongs. First, on the negative side, I have criticized and tried to rebut the reasons the nationalist might put forward in defense of his view that nationalism is moral, even highly moral. The main reasons are centered around the value of national cultural belonging and identity, and the importance of defending this value; the value was presented as being in principle independent of the will of actual individuals. In the debate, the nationalist mainly puts himself forward as the unique defender of this important value. I have pointed out a contradiction that often arises at this point: sophisticated pro-nationalist writers most often accept that the ethno-nation is a ‘construction’ and an ‘imagined community’, but how can such constructed items compel an unconditioned loyalty and give rise to objective, non-chosen duties? Leaving this issue aside, I have further argued against the nationalist that (ethno-)national identity is one identity among many, that its value does not derive from its being unchosen; on the contrary, it becomes morally and politically relevant only when it is autonomously chosen as a focus of identification, or, alternatively, in situations in which the national belonging of an individual gives rise to discrimination (similar to the case of racial discrimination). In both cases (ethno-)national identity deserves protection on general, non-nationalistic grounds. In the first case it is the autonomous will of an individual that grounds the respectability of his or her national identity, not any kind of ‘group will’ or irreducible ‘collective autonomy’. In the second case it is a violation of the basic moral right of individuals to equal treatment that motivates moral considerations. However, the right to protection is limited: it does not in most cases guarantee a right to a state, only a conditional right to some kind of autonomy. It is a right and not a duty for the members of the protection-seeking group; they are free to exit, if they wish, or to remodel their life in non-traditional, non-purist terms. This may change the life of the group as a whole, may even make it unrecognizable as the group it once was; however, if the innovators form a majority, and use morally and legally permissible means, they are morally in the clear.

2The real work that has to be done at this juncture is to come to the nitty-gritty of the issues of group rights and to spell out in detail a view about what kind of protection various characteristics of a group should be granted, and on what detailed grounds. This, however, goes far beyond the scope of this book. I want instead to recapitulate the criticisms of the nationalist stance, and consider the proposition that nationalism may be immoral. I apologize for repeating some of the points from chapter seventeen, where I undertook to show not only that nationalism is not (highly) moral, but that in its most typical and central forms may well be positively immoral.

3Here then is the gist of the case against nationalism. Remember that we have distinguished two basic kinds: the invidious and the even-handed. In chapter eighteen we discussed a third competitor, liberal nationalism, which in our view cannot be properly called ‘nationalism’ or (col)lapses into a milder variant of the ordinary non-invidious variant. Let me start with the obvious. The invidious variant is typically rather nasty and morally repugnant. The main reason for this is the competition for scarce resources, united with an ideology that justifies extreme solutions. Remember the bottleneck we talked about at the beginning of the book: there is too little territory for all candidate ethnic groups to have a state. The sociologists should tell us more about cultural competition as well, but it is clear that it exists and might be fierce. Take language: the ‘big’ languages compete between themselves for worldwide domination; the ‘small’ ones compete with the big ones within particular communities, and with each other. Various dialects compete for official recognition and for the status of an autonomous language, possibly the official language of a given state. The competition is bound to be ferocious, and invidious nationalism precisely fits such situations and thrives in them. (This distinguishes national partiality from, say, familial partiality and faithfulness. Once you are married, if faithful, you are out of competition; Mother Nature has wisely administered the relevant resources here.)

4Now, invidious nationalism compounds the difficulty by propounding a moral-sounding justification for tough attitudes. No wonder that a loop is often formed: the initial competition gives rise to, or selects, invidious ideologies, which make the competition even tougher, and in need of even more invidious ideologies. The excuse of nationalism on the grounds of self-defense is valid, but extremely limited. The cultural excuses for the invidious variant are invalid. They appeal to (i) excessive statism, (ii) monoculturalism, (iii) a wrong picture of cultural proximity, and (iv) an overly pessimistic view of human nature.

5Most thoughtful pro-nationalist authors insist upon the self-defense of a group as the valid ground of excuse for invidious attitudes. For example, M. Walzer (1997, chapter four), stresses the role of fear and insecurity in producing extremist attitudes, apparently taking them to make the attitudes understandable, if not excusable. On the contrary, when people feel safe, he goes on to claim, they develop more complex identities in which the exclusive identification with one social framework (or ‘tribe’, as he puts it) is replaced by a plurality of identifications. This captures precisely the validity and limits of the excuse: it is valid only in situations of direct serious threat, and it stops being valid the moment the threat is removed. What Walzer forgets to add is that the threat itself is most often again a nationalist one: at the beginning of each justified nationalistic move, there is an unjustified one (from the opposite side, most often). He directly muddies the waters by proposing the picture in which particularist nationalist movements, say the anti-colonial movement in India, arise out of a legitimate response to imperialist ‘universalism’ (1990, second lecture). Only in retrospect do we learn that the ‘universalism’ in question is a false one; but if it is false, what is the truth behind it? Well, the truth is that the empire is again governed by one nation (in Walzer’s examples, the English): the initial impetus was again nationalistic, and this is why the universalism has been false. But then, the advocate of nationalism has no right to use this kind of example to condemn universalism, and to extol the virtues of the nation: it was nationalism against nationalism from the very beginning.

6As far as culturalist excuses are concerned, we have criticized at length the main assumptions of nationalism’s culturalist line of defense, which could be harnessed to justify its various types, so we shall not repeat the criticism here. Now, the most typical kind of nationalism is the invidious variant, for reasons that are far from accidental. Perhaps the most logical is the following: if one values one’s own ethnic group highly the simplest approach is to value it tout court. Partiality and universalization make for strange bedfellows, as has often been noted in the literature. Furthermore, the invidious variant is vastly more practical: if one definitely prefers one’s own culture in all respects to any foreign one, it is a waste of time to bother about others. The non-invidious variant introduces an enormous complication: if you believe in it you have to believe, on the one hand, that your nation is somehow better, morally preferable, endowed with a more attractive culture for you, but that others, who are not your co-nationals, should justifiably believe exactly the same thing about cultures that you find less attractive, and so on. This tension between spontaneous attachment and reflective readiness to see all communities with an equal eye makes the non-invidious position psychologically unstable, and hard to uphold in situations of conflict. This psychological weakness is likely to make it politically less effective. This brings us directly to the next point.

7The non-invidious but tough variant of nationalism is unstable for deep reasons that cannot easily be overcome. I have just mentioned the internal tension between the universality of the non-invidious variant (all should struggle for their own nation!) and the advice it gives to the individual (struggle for your people, against others, if necessary!). The sad reality of competition makes the non-invidious variant difficult to uphold in practice. Most nationalisms, perhaps all, sin against internal minorities, and the thoughtful defenders of pro-national attitudes tend to acknowledge the fact (see, for example, Walzer’s insistence that the moment of truth for each nationalism comes when it has to face the next smaller community that wants to secede from ‘its’ territory). No wonder: suppose I am persuaded by the non-invidious but tough ideologist that I have to fight for my people, persuade my wife to have five kids for the benefit of our fatherland, and dedicate myself to my ethnic roots (not to mention such subtle things as listening for the most part to the music of composers of my ethno-nation), and that each member of any nation should do the same things for his or her people. Suddenly, I discover that in the very midst of my country there is a community that simply does not fit into the picture: they speak a different dialect, have a different religion, and show no enthusiasm for my project, for which I am ready to die. Perhaps I can summon some abstract understanding of their situation, but in the actual struggle they will appear as just another bunch of foreigners, inimical to our noble purpose. As Rorty puts it, apparently with a lot of sympathy, a group constructs its narrative identity by “apotheosizing its heroes, diabolizing its enemies” (Rorty, 1993, 587). With the enemy seen as the devil himself, it is difficult to preserve a universalizing attitude.

8Even if it were not unstable, the variant under discussion is internally too radical to be morally acceptable. It relies upon the same false assumptions—(i), (ii), and (iii)—as the invidious kind. By giving primacy to unchosen belonging it sins against autonomy. By preaching the duty of partiality it adds an additional difficulty. Justice as impartiality is meant to solve conflicts and make possible cohabitation. Once group partiality reigns, every group will reasonably want its own set of political institutions, and we will end up with the nasty variant. So the non-invidious variant, as presented in theory and in a relatively cautious form, is still not morally in the clear. The usual applications of the variant are obviously and dramatically immoral. The nastiness of non-invidious, universalizing nationalism is easy to overlook, if one falls into the trap of viewing the ‘national collective’ as one big individual. When the advocate of nationalism talks about ‘the will of the collective’ or ‘the autonomy of the group’, one tends to forget that it is the collective against its own members, if necessary. (Take the rights of individual women, if you need a reminder. ‘One should not abort the future defenders of our nation’, was the slogan of even the very moderate Slovenian nationalist coalition [DEMOS] in the early 1990s. For them, an individual Slovenian woman is just one more ‘mother of the nation’, whose will has to coincide with the will of the Slovenian collective.)

9What about the ultra-moderate nationalism? The ultra-moderate variant does not present a clearly nationalist political or cultural program at all. To the extent that it is morally in the clear it is not nationalist, and to the extent it is nationalist it is not morally in the clear. We have already documented the problems for the ultra-moderate, liberal nationalist line. Let me briefly recall that ultra-moderate defenders of pro-nationalist attitudes do not offer clear long-term political guidelines. We have discussed authors that explicitly call themselves (liberal) nationalists. Let me in addition mention M. Walzer, who does not do so, but who nevertheless defends a particularism of nations. He sometimes bravely states that self-determination (involving secession) is the paradigmatic form of his moral program of a particularistic universalism (Walzer, 1990), and his general political advice is to let each nation that wants to go its own way do so. Then, facing the problem of minorities, he comes to the view that the best guarantee of civilized treatment are “federal and confederal controls”. But federation is not what secession preserves, but what it normally destroys. I am pointing to these internal tensions not in order to criticize Walzer, but to document once more the internal weaknesses of the ultra-moderate variant. It nicely illustrates the first part of my basic claim about it: to the extent that it is morally in the clear it is not nationalist. If you think that in order to control the enthusiasm of a given ‘tribe’ you have to harness it in a multi-ethnic federation, you are definitely against nationalism, not for it.

10To continue on the cultural side, the ultra-moderate theoretician stresses that national identity is only one among many important identities (M. Walzer, D. Miller). The merely national identity is an impoverished one, grounded in fear and insecurity (Walzer, 1997, chapter four). How is this attitude supposed to be nationalistic?

11In general, liberal nationalist authors mostly insist upon the right of individuals to give expression to their love of their ethno-national community and culture. It seems to be morally in the clear, but even here a modicum of caution is recommended: in a typical multinational state partiality to one’s own ethnic community does not always lead to the best solutions. In today’s world, rich with international interactions, such ethnically centered love can lead to isolationism and to the extent that it is nationalist it is not morally in the clear.

12Let me briefly mention what I think might be the only serious sin of the ultra-moderate variant, namely that it gives nationalism an acceptable name, a front that actual, nasty nationalisms could make use of. To get the required distance, imagine that a bunch of intelligent, sensitive, and thoughtful intellectuals decide to promote ‘liberal and cosmopolitan racism’, cooking up a bland, somewhat inconsistent mixture of claims, each of them morally acceptable, or almost. The mixture is not racist by any ordinary standards, featuring almost trivial claims about race, say, that ‘whites should not be ashamed of being white, since this is a part of their identity, although normally not the central one’. Still, they insist on calling themselves ‘racists’, and on publishing articles and books in defense of (what they call) racism. What would you think of their enterprise? I myself would beg them, as my respected colleagues and good human beings, to desist from lending their good name(s) to a highly problematic ideology.

13Self-styled liberal nationalists sometimes claim that, given the importance of national sentiment, there is no viable alternative to liberal nationalism. We have already mentioned that more cosmopolitan alternatives should not be rejected out of hand. To this last issue we turn in the next and final chapter.

© Central European University Press, 2001

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