Rethinking Nationalism

Is nationalism a coherent political philosophy? Is it logically, as well as emotionally, compelling? What is a "nation," exactly? Does it have a right to existence, and to independence? If so, why? These are the sort of questions The Philosophy of Nationalism is all about; but its author, Paul Gilbert, is not the man to answer these questions.

Gilbert starts out promising to treat nationalist ideas seriously, and nationalists themselves with respect. But, as an all-too-typical modern academic, he cannot get his mind out of its prison of liberal/Left prejudices. His procedure is to define the "nation," subdivide "nationalism" into abstract types, and construct arguments for each type -- and every step of the way, to make unwarranted assumptions guaranteeing that the arguments all fail and allowing him to assure us that nationalism must be rejected.

His definition of "nation" is "a group of a kind that has, other things being equal, the right to statehood" (his emphasis). First of all, the invocation of rights-doctrine opens up a whole can of philosophical worms as to what rights are, what they are grounded in, and how they are to be realized -- and he is blithely indifferent towards, or even ignorant of, these all-important questions. Second of all, even he understands that there is a difference between having a right and exercising it.

The Second Amendment, for instance, guarantees all Americans the right to keep and bear arms. It is implicit in the Founders' understanding of what the "militia" is, that all able-bodied male citizens have a duty to keep and bear arms (I, for one, agree with them; however, the militia has undeniably fallen into desuetude). Furthermore, widespread gun-ownership is a positive good for society (because it increases the risks for criminals, killing some and discouraging others). But the mere right to keep and bear arms implies that we are equally free to refrain from doing so. Obviously, then, the case for an armed citizenry is something quite different from the mere right to keep and bear arms.

The third problem is that Gilbert's use of the term "nation" obliterates the distinction between nationality and the nation-state. This distinction is important, and his failure to make it allows him to conclude that "nations" (as he has specially defined them) simply do not exist. Now, the fact is that nations do exist; even if you disapprove of them, and want the whole world to be blended into universal homogeneity, you have to admit this (unless you are an ignorant fool or an academic philosopher).

Nationalism is the belief that nationality is the proper focus of political identity, and that the nation-state is the proper focus of political loyalty. To put it another way, every nationality ought to have its own nation-state. It doesn't just have a right to independence: having its own country is a positive good.

Why is this so? Well, this brings us to the arguments that Gilbert constructs for his various types of nationalism: "aggregative," "societal," "naturalist," "subjectivist," "political," "territorial," "cultural," etc. Each type isolates one constitutive element of nationality and treats it as the whole. Not surprisingly, none of them alone proves sufficient to ground a claim to self-government. Gilbert's procedure amounts to cutting off a man's legs and then blaming him for not being able to walk.

The first distinction, between "aggregative" and "societal," is the most specious of all. According to Gilbert, "aggregative" nationalism holds that the nation is some trait inherent in individuals, while "societal" nationalism holds that the nation is a kind of community. The truth is that it is impossible to have an individual outside of a community, or a community not composed of individuals.

Consider language, the paradigmatic criterion of nationality. English is my native language; I think in English; this is an important part of my identity. I also speak and listen, read and write, in English; it is how I communicate with others in my language-community.

People do not pop into existence, fully-formed, out of thin air: they share traits because they learn them from the community they grow up in. (This, incidentally, is the reason why the "social contract" theory is utter nonsense.) At the same time, the community exists because its members, sharing these traits, interact with each other. Nationalism holds that government should embody and reinforce the particular culture of the community.

In theory, there are exactly three possible distributions of sovereignty: (1) in each individual person -- i.e., anarchy; (2) in the entire human species, of which every human being is a citizen; (3) in some group of people united together and divided from the rest of mankind. In historical fact, neither (1) nor (2) has ever been realized. (Each of them is both immoral and impractical, for reasons too involved to go into here.) The question, then, is: which of the unions and divisions of people ought to have sovereignty; how ought people to be united and divided politically?

There are exactly two kinds of sovereign states: ethnic ones and non-ethnic ones. Now, the terms "ethnic" and "ethnicity" are confused in America -- as is the term "nation" -- because so many Americans are descendants of foreign ethnicities who have been (more or less) assimilated into the nation. I use the term "ethnicity" as the genus of which "nation" is a species (city-states and tribes are other species). "Ethnicity" is the sum of inherited traits that, being shared, make an eqnoV, a people, of individual persons.

Why should it matter whether one people is coextensive with one country? Historically, nation-states so defined are pretty rare. Culture, geography, history, and other criteria of nationality are not perfectly congruent (just think of the competing claims of Irish Republicans and Ulster Unionists).

The first and easiest answer is twofold: on the one hand, social facts as they happen to be are not, by themselves, any argument for how they ought to be; and on the other, perfection is never an option in human affairs. Only the crudest caricature of a conservative would assert fiat status quo ruat caelum. (This did seem to be the basis for the first President Bush's foreign policy, but that's a topic for another day.) The real question is: what is the best possible goal to aim at?

Human beings are naturally social; belonging to a community is one of our basic needs. Of course there are many different and overlapping kinds of communities, with different requirements, and some bonds are stronger than others. But the politically relevant kind of community is that which constitutes the polity itself. Either a country consists of one people, united by a common sense of identity and loyalty, or it consists of a random aggregation of persons with nothing to bind them together but the superficial fact of subjection to the same jurisdiction.

Take my favorite example, Canada. French Canadians and English Canadians are equally members of Western civilization as a whole, but within that civilization they have nothing in common but the fact that they have been under the same sovereignty since Quebec was conquered by the British empire. Even under that sovereignty, Quebec has (most of the time) had a semi-autonomous government of its own, within which its people have preserved themselves from Anglification. Meanwhile, Americans and English Canadians are descended from a common stock and have grown even more alike -- despite the frantic efforts of a cultural/political class whose main passion is not any love for the abstraction called "Canada," but rather a nihilistic hatred of both the British empire and the American republic. Where in this mess of conflicting impulses -- Quebecois culture, Anglo-American culture, nihilistic anti-culture -- is there any focus of real identity and loyalty?

A government acts as if it were a person: it passes laws and enforces them, it interacts with other states. Every citizen of a country has obligations to it: to obey the laws, to pay taxes, to come to its defense when it is attacked. A collective entity, such as a country, can only act on behalf of its members to the extent that they have a common good in it. Any imposition beyond the requirements of the common good is unjust and illegitimate. The common good is grounded in the commonality of the members: i.e., in their likeness to each other. This is self-evident: the opposite -- that there is any common good in "diversity" and "multiculturalism" -- is self-contradictory.

The ethical case for nationalism, then, is that government is best suited to human nature when it is the political expression of a social unit. If government is like a person, then ethnicity is what gives it personality.

This fundamentally Aristotelian position might seem to be at odds with the Hobbesian/Lockean philosophy expressed in the Declaration of Independence and often held to be the "proposition" that defines America. But the argument made here is only about the ethnic/geographic composition of the polity within which we "secure these rights." Moreover, I would argue that the common good and individual rights, properly understood, are simply mirror images of each other -- as inseparable as the community and the individuals who compose it. And finally, this argument is perfectly in accordance with the sentiment expressed in the Constitution: "We the People ... secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity."

2002 by Karl Jahn

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