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What is Nationalism?


In political science terms

  • A “nation” is a shared identity or imagined community that ties a group of people together. Traditionally that imagined community is an ethnicity and in fact a lot of literature uses the words nation and ethnicity as synonyms.. but ethnic nationalism is not the only form as we shall see.
  • A “State” is a centralized hierarchal organization that maintains a monopoly on the use of coercive force within a given territory (as first defined by Max Weber)
  • Self Determination is the idea that these imagined communities have the right to decide their political fates internally, and independent of any external authority.
  • Nationalism has traditionally meant the ideology that each nation / ethnicity should have its own State that reflects and defends their shared culture and values and give them national self determination. This definition is increasingly contested though, as we shall see.

So let’s look at the history!

Ethnic nationalism

Early Nationalist movements were based on shared ethnicity and language – the “blood and soil” nationalism that re-drew the map of Europe, uniting Germany and Italy into strong States instead of a collection of small principalities. The idea that everyone who shares a language and ethnic identity should also share a government is invoked to this day – Russia using the presence of ethnic Russians to annex half of Crimea and Israel’s self definition as a Jewish state. The thing is, there are very few States in the world where the State’s borders match the places where that ethnic Nation actually lives – Palestinians stubbornly continue to exist in the lands Israel has conquered, Russia has dozens of ethnic minorities, and we all know about Germany’s effort to eliminate people who weren’t ethnic Germans.

With the sole exception of the Republic of Ireland, every ethno-nationalist State in the world claims lands that by that ideology should be part of someone else’s nation! Spanish nationalism, for example, can be better understood as Castilian nationalism – Spain’s modern borders are the result of wars of conquest waged by King Ferdinand of Castile and his wife Isabella, Queen of Aragon after their marriage united their kingdoms. Catalonia, Galicia, and the Basque country are all Nations in the ethnic sense – but they have no States. The only reason Portugal isn’t part of modern Spain is because of their alliance with Britain that kept the Castilians from invading. Speaking of Britain, British nationalism is inextricable from English nationalism. Again, Scotland, Wales, Cornwall, and the Isle of Mann are all Nations – and northern Ireland is a piece of the Irish nation carved off through bloody violence.

This sense of common identity is often not organic – it is deliberately manufactured. The French and Italian governments have gone to great lengths to standardize the French and Italian languages over the last two hundred years. Meanwhile, the British waged extensive campaigns to wipe out the Scots, Scots Gaidhlig, Irish, Cornish, Manx, and Welsh languages. As recently as the 1950’s it was common for teachers to beat children for speaking Welsh in public schools in Wales. America and Canada took it a step further and forcibly abducted native children, ripping them from their communities and placing them in schools where they were beaten for speaking their native languages. Even white minorities in America were not safe – up until the 20’s there were large german speaking communities all over the American midwest, but during the world wars those communities all stopped speaking the language and started using English to prove their loyalty.

Settler Nationalisms

The North American British colonies that would become the US and Canada were both founded on this same outward-expanding English nationalism, just as our neighbors to the south were founded on the ideologies of Spanish (really Castilian) nationalism and Portuguese nationalism respectively – with Catholic nationalism underlying both. But as these new settler states expanded, they needed a new form of nationalism. Lacking a single common unifying ethnicity, they settled upon a combination of religious nationalism and racial nationalism – the settler populations defined their imagined community in opposition to the native people they disenfranchised and the captive black nation they used as slave labor. And so white supremacy was born – a potent mix of christian and racial identity that drove everything from Manifest destiny to the Trump election.

This combination was not limited to the British colonies either, though in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies religion took precedence. Many people don’t know that the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t officially ended until 1834, and was a core component of Spanish imperialism across the world. The priests who butchered native Californians in the Missions had centuries of practice doing the same to people accused of witchcraft, apostasy, or just questioning the Monarchy. In the colonies, Catholic nationalism became the justifying ideology of colonialism – any act of brutality could be justified if it ‘saved souls’ by converting people to christianity.

Post independence, the United States also needed a new kind of nationalism that would tie the feuding former colonies together. Protestantism had been a key component of British / English nationalism. While the Constitution prohibited any State religion to keep the new federal government from taking sides between the various Protestant denominations, Protestant hegemony was a core part of American nationalism from the moment it emerged. Meanwhile, just as British nationalism had formed a shell around English nationalism and expanded the scope of who it could incorporate, Anglo hegemony became white supremacy in order to justify slavery. That fusion of White nationalism and Protestant religious nationalism became the basis of American nationalism; and both animated and justified Manifest Destiny and the long series of brutal genocides carried out as that new nation expanded westward. When the United States Supreme Court declared in the Dred Scott case that black people had no rights that the United states government was bound to respect they made it explicit – in legal terms, black people were not part of the American nation.

A similar fusion of white nationalism and protestant supremacy animated Australian nationalism and was even enshrined into formal law via the White Australia policy that prohibited immigration of non-white people.

Israeli ethnic nationalism (zionism) is the latest example of this trend – it is a potent combination of ethnic and religious nationalism, formed in reaction to genocide, and hardened in opposition to the indigenous people of Palestine who have been displaced by the settler population as Israel has expanded. “God gave us this land” isn’t just a phrase from history.

Racial nationalism resurgent

To Australia’s north, a second category of ethnic nationalism, formed in reaction to imperialism, is typified by imperial Japan and modern China. Japanese nationalism was born out of the humiliation of being forced to open their ports to western ships at gunpoint. The Japanese had endured hundreds of years of brutal civil war and might never have united if they hadn’t had a common enemy.

Like their European counterparts, the immediate follow up from unification was expansion – and the Empire quickly matched Europe’s worst excesses, even while framing themselves as defending Asia against westerners. Their slogan – Asia for the Asians – and the “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” they set up as their empire expanded through Indonesia, the Philippines, and China used the language of anti-imperialism to justify imperialism.

And, of course, European ethnic nationalism never went away. From the Nazis to Brexit, it is still potent.

All in all, it’s an impressively gruesome history.

Leftist ethnic Nationalisms

Everything discussed up to this point has been the nationalism of empires, but the idea of political self determination for an imagined community has had deep resonance on the left as well. Famous examples include the Irish rebels who fought a protracted guerrilla war to win independence for the Republic – or the Algerians, Vietnamese, and others. Even in cases where nationalism wasn’t the original ideology, it manifested almost organically as new nations formed. Just look at Haiti – when the uprising began it wasn’t nationalist at all it was a slave rebellion. But as the French slave owners were driven out, the people of Haiti needed a common identity and it was born in their common struggle.

Once in power, the States established by these nominally leftist ethnic nationalist movements have often not been much better than the ones they overthrew. The Republic of Ireland drove out the British and then handed huge chunks of their State infrastructure over to the Catholic church which promptly set about enslaving, raping and murdering children and “fallen women.” The mass graves of children left by the Catholic church in Ireland are only rivalled by the mass graves at Catholic-run “indian” boarding schools in Canada and the United States. In their desperation to be free of one colonial power, the Irish handed their children to another – the church of Rome.

Meanwhile, Chinese nationalism began as a reaction to Western and Japanese attacks, was absorbed by the Communists, and continues to manifest today in the overtly Han-supremacist policies of the CCP. While Marxist Leninist Maoism may be the official ideology, China’s real ideology is Han Supremacy – just ask the Tibetans or Uighurs.

Post-colonial Nationalist formations

The next category is nationalisms where the imagined community is based on the shared historical trauma of colonization and would never have existed at all if it wasn’t for foreign interference. Depending on how you classify them, there are between 120 and 187 ethnic nations with distinct languages in the Philippines – it’s hard to believe they would have ever united as a single country if it hadn’t been for the succession of foreign invaders from the Spanish to the Japanese and the Americans. The same is probably also true in India, with 22 officially recognized ethnic nations and languages. If it hadn’t been for British conquest and colonization, they might have each remained independent instead of being consolidated into India and Pakistan (both shaped by religious nationalism in the absence of any unifying language). And of course Africa’s map is an absolute mess of borders drawn by former colonial powers with no regard at all for Africa’s incredibly diverse ethnic nations.

Civic nationalism

The most recent development is what’s sometimes called Civic Nationalism. Civic nationalism is based on a common set of political values or objectives and is self-consciously diverse and inclusive of people with different backgrounds. In a real sense, the mass movements of the 60’s and 70’s were an effort to shift the United States from White Protestant nationalism to civic nationalism.

That shift has been contested ever since, and in a real way Trumpism (and the Tea Party before it) were and are an effort to roll back that change and move away from Civic Nationalism to either Religious Nationalism, Ethnic Nationalism, or both. When the Republicans talk about wanting to make America a Christian nation again, this is what they are actually advocating for – a return to white protestant nationalism (remember they don’t consider Catholics, Mormons, and others Christians). Canada, Australia, and England went through a similar process and are facing similar backlash.

Scotland is almost unique in the English speaking world in that the global trend towards diversity and tolerance dovetailed with the growth of the Scottish nationalist movement since the 1970’s and the two movements have effectively merged. Most Scottish nationalists are self-consciously civic nationalists; welcoming immigrants and embracing diversity are core values for their movement. As England elects xenophobic Torries year after year, this disparity in values is a growing difference between the two and contributes to Scotland’s sense of political distinctiveness.

In fact, during the weeks I spent traveling around Scotland prior to their 2014 independence referendum talking to activists, they were almost unanimous in rejecting the label of “nationalists” – which they associated with ethnic nationalism – and framing the Scottish independence movement as organized opposition to what they saw as racist British nationalism that was being imposed on them!

Nationalism against the State

And then there’s the Nationalism of the Black Panthers, Brown Berets, and others within the America’s internal colonies – a nationalism that didn’t seek to create a new State, but to carve out self government and autonomy. This fifth category of Nationalism, often rooted in the rhetoric of leftist ethnic nationalism, is distinct because many of these movements explicitly rejected the idea of creating a new State.

For example, MEChA’s founding document (Plan de Santa Barbara de Aztlan) explicitly rejected efforts to create a new State and instead argued for community-level collective self governance for individual barrio communities. The American Indian Movement likewise rejected Statism, their “nationalism” was an attempt to re-assert indigenous sovereignty and treaty rights – not to establish a new State. Ward Churchill has argued that even the attempted anarchosyndicalist revolution in Catalunya should be understood as essentially the same thing – an attempt to create a new Catalan nation based on anarchist principles of self management and without a State. If a nation is simply an imagined community as it’s commonly defined, that’s a hard argument to refute. The Zapatista communities in Chiapas are another contemporary example, a revolutionary confederation of self-governing communities with no central State; but sharing unity of purpose and pledged to mutual defense. The Kurdish YPG is another example.

There are also movements like Cascadia which is likewise explicit in not wanting a new nation-state, but embraces civic nationalism and a strong regional identity rooted in their distinct bioregion instead of an ethnic identity.

This kind of state-less or even anti-state nationalism is fundamentally different from the expansionist nationalism of empires, but is similar in that it provides cohesion to the social fabric and an internal logic for a proposed system of governance.

So what then is nationalism?

Simply put, nationalism is a unifying ideology for an imagined community of people who believe they have enough in common that they should share a form of government. It is often, but not always, tied to an ethnic nation and seeks to create a Nation-State – a political organization that claims exclusive control over and legitimacy within a given territory.

Nationalism tied to States usually uses ethnicity, race, or religion as its binding agent to create a sense of common identity; and this sort of statist nationalism has a long history of abuse. This is what most anarchists and many socialists think of when they talk about nationalism – and they are right to oppose it. But it’s not the only form of nationalism. Civic nationalism and nationalisms rooted in a sense of place provide an alternative.

So what then should a Californian nationalism look like? That’s for all of us to decide. Personally, my ideal Californian nationalism is anti-statist, instead seeking to create a free federation of largely autonomous self-managing communities with a radically decentralized locally democratic decision making structure. It would have a sense of identity built on a shared love of place – this paradise between the mountains and ocean where 60% of the native plants grow nowhere else and everything down to our seasons is distinct from the rest of north America. In this future California, everyone is welcome so long as they welcome everyone, our biological distinctiveness is treasured and defended, and we learn from and embrace indigenous people’s long history of caring for the place we all call home.

Whatever future we end up with, I hope that we think about it very carefully. As the Cascadians like to point out, re-creating the US in miniature on the Pacific helps no one. The creation of a new country, a new nation, is an incredibly rare and important opportunity in human history. We owe it to the future to get it right.

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