Let us see how the world’s best thinkers on nations and nationalism have approached the topic. Rummaging through my own book shelves I found at least 20 different ways to approach it. I’ll quickly overview all of these.
In a follow-up article, I will sketch a desirable role for nationalism in a planetary world truly worth fighting for.
We can imagine worlds without borders, we can dream of heavens that unite us all, our planet viewed from space—but at the end of the line, the strongest social force to ever explode on this planet is the nation. Astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts, despite their claims to seeing the world as one, a “a blue marble in space with no borders” and so on, are indeed so much part of nationalist projects that the very title of their profession varies according to national loyalties.
That doesn’t make the nation eternal, or always good. But it means we’d be foolish to underestimate it. It’s a force we must understand so as to creatively and sensitively guide it towards universal and ethical ends.
Nationalism: The Strongest Social Force?
On a very basic level, most observers agree that nationalism—in theory—can be harnessed for both ethically viable and pathological purposes. As a social dynamic, it is the same as what we call “patriotism”; it’s just that we tend to call it patriotism when it’s attributed to the perceived underdog and/or when the actions it brings about are viewed as positive. People get swept away in collective effervescence and pride, giving blood, toil, and tears for the national or patriot cause.
And then after the “great historical events”, there is a sense of shared pride for the nation, a belonging, a characteristic form of deep sorrow of how we suffered through this. The American Spirit is not found in “artificial Americana” of Hollywood teenage movies, but in the solemn, rugged freedom you feel walking across an old bridge of its glory industrial age, listening to the blues, encountering the lonely vastness of the Great Plains or the Rockies, and hearing the dreams of young people and how they take it as their birthright to try to pave their own life paths. There is a romantic feeling to it that cannot be transmitted other than by being in the country for at least a period of time, by knowing the people, the environments, feeling its history. As foreigners, we can get little premonitions of the national pride of the USA, of the passionate but desperate absurdity known by the French folk spirit and its scent of revolution, of the grim Slavic sorrow of Russia, suffering and struggling from Ivan the Terrible, to the “Great Patriotic War” (WWII) and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like lovers, we tend to believe, at least on some level, that the nationalist sentiments tied to our own country are the strongest ones. But the art of ethnography and cultural perspective-taking can relieve us of such illusions: The national love stories of others are stronger than we can imagine. As Westerners, we are only now waking up to the force of nationalism in China and India.
History, language, music, art, food, and customs meld into one pattern—and this pattern is linked to a monopoly of violence. Given this “layered” nature of nationalism, it is as the depths of the sea: Invisible at the surface level. You need to dive into the depth of a collective psyche to see it, to feel it. It’s alive, and it’s always powerful, because it’s always sad, and it’s always proud—even if the pride may be a wounded one. When it rises from the depths, it can come as salvation, as ecstasy, as sudden unification, as unfettered rage, as terror, as genocide, as total war.
Individually, nationalism is not the strongest social force in the lives of most of us—we care much more about our personal life stories and of our families than about countries and nation states. But think about it: It’s the only social force that can involve millions of people and that people can be be prepared to kill and die for. Millions of people wouldn’t die for your life story or your family. Only you would. So it’s because a lot of people care not-so-little about the same thing that it’s such a strong force. In statistical mechanics, an average flow of a trillion particles will explain the events of the world better than the bouncing back and forth of any one particular particle. If ten million people in a certain geographical area simultaneously feel a bit of shame and respond with a bit of rage—but, individually, less so than if they had personally been slighted by a neighbor—what happens? A force is unleashed that spells murder and mayhem upon anything that comes in their way. Can big corporations truly compete with that power, even in our global days? Last I heard, McDonald’s is becoming “Uncle Vanya” in wartime Russia.
Most of us have a negative connotation to the word “nationalism” (although a growing minority on the right tend to disagree) and a positive connotation to the word “patriotism” (although some of our leftwing friends might disagree). Just like one man’s terrorist can be another’s freedom fighter, one’s chauvinist nationalism can be another’s patriotism.
To note this is not to say we are stuck with relativism. Although relativist stances can initially help us challenge our own biases, they offer no moral compass, and so they tend to inadvertently lead to a “might is right” perspective—as many critics have noted. So, even without accepting the naïve division into “good” patriotism and “bad” nationalism, we can be committed to using the forces of nationalism for good, to the best of our capacities of compassion and moral reason.
If nationalism is both terrible and wonderful, let us at least approach it with multiple perspectives, and try to get a rich and nuanced view of it. We cannot know what the fate of nationalism will be, but we can be almost certain that it will continue to play pivotal roles at key moments of world history. Ukraine is seeing the birth of a proud nation with more patriotic citizenry, perhaps even capable of curbing its history of corruption; those observers of the conflict from around the world who have wounded national pride at the hands of “the West” tend to hope to see a Russian victory over Western hegemony; and Russia itself is acting from a nationalist framework, whatever the geostrategic aspects of it may be.
There is no understanding the situation we are in without understanding the nature of nationalism. In short, this decisive moment is one of nationalism. As will future moments be. Those that understand this force the best will, perhaps, shape the history of the world the most.
20 Ways to Understand Nationalism
The different perspectives each have their scholarly proponents that I shall also mention. Let me first say two things.
Firstly, I agree with all of them—even as they seemingly contradict one another. But I believe their perspectives are “true but partial”—and I believe that seeing all of the perspectives together facilitates a better understanding of the phenomenon. However, simply listing the perspectives doesn’t really make us wiser. Rather, we have to try to see how they compare to one another, how they partially overlap, and how they form parts of a greater, non-arbitrary view of nations and nationalism. It is by seeing the “property space” within which the different perspectives arise, and then coordinating the perspectives in a case-sensitive manner, that the secret good nationalism is unlocked.
Secondly, of course, mentioning the scholars and their work is by no means a claim to discuss any of them exhaustively. I will offer abstracted versions of their views, hopefully skillfully abstracted ones. I will also on occasion bend their terminology or adapt it for the purposes of example of convenience. But it is the fate of the comprehensive social theorist to be a dabbler—and if I have an anthem I swear by, it’s the dabbler’s tragic and proud way of life.
- Nationalism, as we think of it today, only emerged fully in the 19th century (Hobsbawm), and did so as a companion to a certain, industrial, mode of production (Gellner)
Eric J. Hobsbawm, one of the greatest historians of the 20th century, wrote Nations and Nationalism since 1780 in which he lays out a detailed account of how the “nation state” in many ways was “invented” in the 19th century, which involved a significant amount of social engineering on the behalf of rulers and bureaucrats. The nation state is when there is a “congruence between a political and a national unit”. This is a definition that Hobsbawm draws directly from the philosopher Ernest Gellner, whose 1983 work (also titled Nations and Nationalism) argued that nationalism must be a distinctly “modern” social phenomenon. Basically, for big economies to function, you must educate wide populations, and that requires a homogenization of language; hence nationalist projects begin to abound.
With this view, we must not lose from sight that nationalism is a historical phenomenon, and thus that it arose one time, not so long ago, and that it may shapeshift. Yes, there are older histories of many of our countries, but even these histories were defined and written, often romantically so, in the 19th century, by people who specifically wanted to engender nationalism.
- Nationalism consists of two categories of “the people”: Ethnos and Demos (Bauhn)
The distinction between Ethnos and Demos is an invention of my own, detailed in my 2019 book, Nordic Ideology, although it’s a fairly long-hanging fruit. The closest thing I have found is in Swedish philosopher Per Bauhn’s 1995 work, Nationalism and Morality, where he distinguishes between “civic” and “ethnic” nationalism—and claims that only the former is ethically defensible (a position I feel sympathy for but must ultimately disagree with).
Ethnos is the people in their concrete, organic, customary reality: the Swedes of Sweden, with certain traditions, language, looks, habits, religions, norms, and so forth.
Demos is the “the people” qua citizens of a certain political unit: All free men of Athens, all citizens of the Kingdom of Sweden, of the Republic of India, and so forth. As such, you can have any race, religion, etc. as long as you are in a relationship of rights and obligations towards the polis, or whichever unit of polity you serve and which serves you. There is a social contract present, in one way or another, and it is of such a universal nature that your particularities cannot and should not make a difference. This is perhaps more the sort of loyalty that de Tocqueville had in mind when he penned his treatise, Democracy in America.
The political Right (not the libertarian one) tends to seek to defend the organic Ethnos against the impersonal and mechanical Demos. Adolf Hitler, for instance, specifically argued that the notion of “German citizenship” became devoid of meaning if it was not based on being ethnically German.
The political Left tends to seek to defend the universality and fairness inherent to inclusion in the Demos against the particularity and favoritism of Ethnos.
In reality—or this is my belief—neither Ethnos nor Demos can be conclusively destroyed by the other principle, even if they are both always in a state of evolution and change. They must evolve together, and they must be braided as two streams, from the particular, towards the universal, and back again.
- Nationalism is an expanded form of tribal community, but not the same as tribalism, and thus a precursor to cosmopolitanism (Harari)
The world-famous historian and author of Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari, notes that, while nations are not the same as tribes, they do after all get people to have solidarity with one another, even millions of complete strangers—paying taxes, helping each other out, and so forth. As such, Harari seems to situate himself in the “expanding circles of solidarity” camp: the claim that there is an evolution from solidarity only with oneself or the closest few, to solidarity with a larger tribe, to solidarity with a nation of people who share certain traits, and from there on to solidarity with all people, perhaps even with nature and animals.
Harari thus means that it would be unwise to vilify nationalism, as it has a “bright side” and can be viewed as one step in the evolution from ego-centrism, to planetary eco-centrism. Without functioning nationalism, many people would lack social security, healthcare, education, protection, and so forth. Thus, don’t try to remove this building block of human solidarity: It is an expanded or abstracted form of tribal community, necessary for yet more expanded and abstracted forms of solidarity to emerge.
- Nationalism, or just any ethnic identity, always builds on an us-versus-them logic (Barth)
The Norwegian anthropologist Fredrik Barth famously argued that all ethnic—and thus national—identities must per definition be based on some negation or opposite. We don’t need a national identity to signify that we are not from Mars (“earthlings” isn’t really an ethnicity). But being French, Indian, or even European all mean something about who we are and who we are not, who we are distinct from.
In other words, the whole point of being Danish is that you’re not Swedish. If all people who were Danish were also Swedish (as is the case for people with double citizenship, etc.), Denmark would not exist as a specifically national identity. It would just be a regional flavor of being Swedish (if we assume, then, that all Danes were also Swedes but not vice versa).
As such, national opposition is built into the very concept of the nation. All national pride, from history, to language, to sports, to customs, to values, to religion, to economic achievement must have at least some element of us-versus-them.
- Nationalism is forged by conflict; the nation-building through war thesis (Sambanis)
In extension of the us-versus-them logic is the idea that conflicts bring nations into being; the so-called nation-building through war thesis propagated by, among others, Nicholas Sambanis. The reason Danes aren’t Swedish is because Danes and Swedes fought countless wars, and that the Kingdom of Denmark managed to remain a sovereign state and thus didn’t become Swedish.
This is a reversal of the conventional nationalism-leads-to-war wisdom. Conflicts create the need for increased social coherence and in-group solidarity, which incentivizes nation-building endeavors and narratives pertaining to a shared identity and an idea of a “we” worth dying for.
This causal direction has become apparent with the war between Russia and Ukraine. Ukrainian identity wasn’t very strong, especially in the south and east, when the country won its independence in 1991. A large share of the population spoke Russian, not Ukrainian, and elections throughout the period showed how the country was divided between a “Ukrainian” west and a “Russian” east. A large share of the population still had a Soviet identity, identifying with the country they were born in. This began to change with the Euromaidan revolution in Kyiv and Russia’s attack on Ukraine in 2014. Over the years, the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians longing to be ruled from the Kremlin has dwindled, all while a new West-leaning identity has grown stronger, seeing Ukraine as the freedom-loving antithesis to authoritarian Russia. And today, after several months of war, plunder, and genocide, Ukrainian citizens across linguistic barriers have rallied behind the flag while each day of fighting is feeding an ever greater pride in being Ukrainian. I would go as far as saying that we’re witnessing the birth of a nation here.
If we look at history, the nation-building through war thesis has a lot of merit: The German nation-state was founded through three successive wars with Denmark, Austria and France. And what would American identity be without their revolution and war against the British? The French without the storm of the Bastille and the following wars with the rest of Europe?— Sweden without Denmark? Denmark without Sweden? Tom without Jerry, Jerry without Tom? You get the idea.
This doesn’t mean that national identities can’t emerge without violence, but the fact remains that wars and revolutions shape our collective identities and that such conflicts tend to remain at the center of our national narratives.
- Nationalism is socially constructed (Wendt) and an “imagined community” (Anderson)
In the scholarly discipline of “international relations”, Alexander Wendt has been a longstanding proponent of “social constructivism”. This is to say that yes, ethnic identities are always defined in opposition to one another, but then they are also changing depending on how the actions of one’s counterparts are interpreted—and their actions, of course, depend upon how they interpret “our” actions.
As such, national identities, and even whole nation states, can shift dramatically in meaning from one day to the next, simply because of how the actions of other national units are interpreted. Are France and Great Britain humiliating the German people? Let’s get back at them (WW2)! Is Russia invading countries for no good reason? Let’s resist heroically (Ukranians) or join NATO even if it costs us the pride and sovereignty that neutrality lent (Finland and Sweden).
Wendt’s vision is not so far away from that of the anthropologist, Benedict Anderson, who coined the term “imagined communities”. Nations are imagined communities because we cannot, obviously, actually have much to do with most of what our nation states are up to. Oftentimes, we cannot even name the basic bureaucracies, laws, and institutions of our own countries, and yet we really feel we’re part of them. Interesting, isn’t it? We’re imagining things. And then we’re imagining things about other countries too, who we then interpret and feel act towards our own country.
Without all of that social construction going on, it’s hard to see how nations could exist at all.
- Nationalism can be “activated” by different agents for different purposes (Brubaker)
The sociologist Rogers Brubaker argued in his 2006 work, Ethnicity Without Groups, that ethnic identities and nationalist fervor are not inherent to the groups themselves. Rather, in moments of conflicting interest, conflict, or any other shared political interest that may come up, much smaller interest groups begin to speak of ethnicities in distinct us-and-them terms, so as to engender and mobilize the strong forces of nationalism. As such, small political groups have time and again “activated” wider sentiments of nationalism to launch aggression again perceived competitors of enemies.
This is made apparent by examples that Brubaker takes from e.g. the Yugoslavian war of the 1990s: people who had lived peacefully as neighbors or even friends could become deadly enemies the moment that nationality was weaponized. The weaponization of nationalism, however, did not at all have to coincide with actual interests of the ethnic group in its entirety—rather, it tended to coincide with the interests of much smaller groups that were of a political, not an ethnic, nature.
- National identity is more fluid than we normally think it is (Jenkins) and can be subjected to individual choice (Song)
The sociologist Richard Jenkins points out in his 1997 work, Rethinking Ethnicity, that relationships fall across a scale from the less formal ones (“we’re buddies!”) to the more formal ones (“you’re a citizen of the USA!”) and that ethnicity and nationality can slide across this scale. As such, people can creatively use different positions on this scale to further their own interests or try to gain recognition or otherwise improve their lives—often entailing rather elaborate balancing acts of being “Chinese American” and so forth. However monolithic nationalism can appear from the outside, or at the macro scale, it tends to dissolve into a thousand unique realities whenever we zoom to the micro-sociological scale. The categorizations of nationalism are never straightforward—they always entail all sorts of negotiation, maneuvering, and sometimes deliberate manipulation to fit in. Likewise, people try to employ ethnic or racial markers to groups they seek to control or feel that they fear. Touchy questions: In today’s Europe of Muslim, Arab, and criminal gang uprisings in banlieues—who is considered to be representative of these uprisings? It’s a question that cuts to the heart of the French Presidential election.
Miri Song, also a sociologist, expanded upon these questions in her 2003 work, Choosing Ethnic Identity. With ethnographic case studies, she showed that not only was national belonging always being renegotiated at the micro level; it was even the case that people make whole personal projects of creating themselves as a certain national and ethnic identity or mix of identities. Sometimes your skin color makes it harder for you to be the ethnic identity you wish, sometimes it makes it easier. Sometimes you get stuck between two identities, always categorized as “the other” and so your alienation and resentment grows. “The people” that is the object of a “national project” always consists of conscious, alive, participants who seek to choose their own identities.
- Nationalism can draw upon several co-existing ethnic identities (Taylor)
It is true that nationalism has been defined as the convergence between an ethnic identity (Swedish) and a political unit (Kingdom of Sweden). But, in practice, there are always multiple ethnic identities present within a state’s territory, and these can even be drawn upon as a part of the same nationalist project.
USA and Canada would be typical examples of such a nationalism, as these are originally not ethnic tribes, but charter-based projects for a variety of (mainly) settlers or colonizers. It is perhaps not then a coincidence that the great theorist of a multicultural state, the philosopher Charles Taylor, is Canadian. But for such multi-ethnic nations to function and not fall apart, they must develop ways to give recognition (nationalist pride, one way or another) to its different groups.
Thus, if nations struggle for recognition, so do ethnic groups within nations—but it is possible for nationalism to include the recognition of several ethnic identities, the struggles of which are thus conjoined.
- Nationalism is an ideology like liberalism and socialism, with a moderate and extremist (anti-democratic) wing (Lipset)
First published in 1960, Political Man by sociologist Seymour Lipset explored the conditions for political democracy. Here, nationalism was considered to be an ideology that could take parliamentary or anti-parliamentary forms. In the latter case, it is extremist nationalism and overlaps with fascism or Nazism—thus being antithetical to political democracy.
This is, I suppose, an outdated and not very original view of the topic. I bring it up given the deep roots of nationalist extremism in today’s Ukraine (which Putin’s regime also used as a pretext for attacking the country). If Ukrainian nationalism is crucial for defending and rebuilding the country, and has the rest of the world awe-struck, it undeniably also has this ingredient. Sometimes, the word “nationalism” can simply be used to denote these violent, racist, chauvinist, and criminal elements of society. It’s difficult to have good nationalism without at least an element of this—as the 2014 Maidan Square protests in Kyiv made apparent. The protests that ousted a pro-Russian illegitimate president also sported a presence of fascist marauders.
- Nationalism is an expression of “identitarian politics” (Dahl) or “identity politics” (Fukuyama)
My personal friend, the sociologist and expert on the far-right and the history of fascist and identitarian ideas, Goran Dahl, has described in older and recent books that nationalism is a commitment to a certain organic identity—not unlike entirely what I called the “Ethnos” above. As such, it marries a commitment to the particular (not the universal) to a commitment to the collective (not the individual). Our collective particularity—when that is the main category of your politics, then you’re a nationalist, to put it simply. Nationalism is often (but not always!) tied to a “radical conservatism”, to a “revolution from the Right”—and to ideas of reaffirming a lost sense of national pride, sometimes even with esoteric ideas of the reestablishment of a Golden Age (Compare to the party name of the Greek Nazis, Golden Dawn).This is described in his work, Radical Conservatism and the Future of Politics.
Goran Dahl has very little in common with the political scientist, Francis Fukuyama, but indeed, in the latter’s 2018 book Identity, Fukuyama also makes the case that cultural identity is becoming a stronger force in today’s world, and hence culture wars and nationalism can be understood as a struggle for recognition of certain identities. As Fukuyama writes, nationalism (and Islamism) can be understood as a “species of identity politics”.
(I have argued similarly in The Listening Society).
- Nationalism is the strongest social force when things hit the fan (Mearsheimer)
John Mearsheimer (who just rose to internet fame through his NATO-critical commentary of the Ukrainian war, but was in fact already known as the world’s no. 1 scholar of international relations of the “realist” school) means that, when it really comes down to it, we can rather safely make a few rather crude assumptions of how the world works:
- When it really comes down to it, nation states are made up of monopolies on violence, and thus they’re more or less in charge of what happens.
- The nation states don’t control one another, and so they have to play against one another in a sort of international “anarchy” where the strongest players will win and get their way, pretty much regardless of who the “good guy” might be in that situation.
- And for that reason, when nations eventually come into conflict, national loyalty will very strongly tend to trump other loyalties (to ideas, to economic classes, to non-national identities).
- This means that conflict and competition can activate nationalism, and that nationalism thus again and again reveals itself to be the strongest social force, even if it may be so dormant in periods that we almost forget about it.
- We do ourselves a favor by not forgetting that: the struggle between nations, not ideologies or other things, is the strongest predictor of how nations act, and also the strongest force that drives people when things hit the fan.
As Mearsheimer has explained in seminars and interviews that comment upon the war in Ukraine, the reason it’s so difficult to capture a country is precisely that: the invading force triggers the force of nationalism. The same happened, he maintains, in e.g. Afghanistan.
- Nationalism is a form of “false consciousness” (Miliband) and is generated by an “ideological state apparatus” (Althusser)
Although the “realist” Mearsheimer supported Bernie Sanders in the US elections, he is pretty much the direct opposite of Marxist thinkers in terms of the analysis of basic notions like nationalism.
If we look at the latter group, they all somehow echo Marx’s view that national identity is a distraction from the “real” or “material” identity of class. And, indeed, to the credit of Marxists, it was true that the Nazis directly sought to use national identity as a way of neutralizing all struggle between classes in Germany and instead direct the us-and-them logic towards other nations and “races”, while “uniting all classes” in a positively framed category of the Third Reich and its Volksgenossen.
Ralph Miliband, the political sociologist, wrote in his 1969 work The State in Capitalist Society that the state—including its ideology and identity—is ultimately a vehicle of the ruling class. Its oh-so-moving national narratives are little more than that: excuses for people to go along with the interests of the already powerful. Power legitimizes itself through “politically socializing” the population, and nationalism is a part of that. “Ideology” in this sense is not thought of as just any set of political ideas: it means a certain veil that masks and normalizes injustices in society.
Another Marxist, of the structuralist brand, Louis Althusser, held that there is an “ideological state apparatus” that calls us forth as citizens and subjects of state power—not least through education and the media. As such, each of us is structured as a “subject”, as someone who acts and thinks in a particular way that reproduces society. Nationalism is part of this—similarly to Miliband’s perspective. But with Althusser, ideology cannot as easily be seen through or transcended; rather, it must be reconstructed in a new (for Althusser, communist) manner.
Marxist scholarship spoke relatively little of patriotism or positive nationalism, although it is fair to assume that for them, true patriotism should be towards universalist, socialist or communist, projects. Note for instance that the Soviet Union is more or less the only country that has had no geographical or ethnic denotation in its name.
With this perspective, you could still view the Ukrainian resistance against Russian aggression as a form of benevolent patriotism—but you’re suspicious of the tendency to emphasize national belonging over class and material interests, of its power to justify new inequalities as soon as the war is over.
- Nationalism arose in the age of globalization—and since decolonization from the 1950s and onwards, new contenders have risen to challenge the power balance
What we classically associate with “nationalism” brings forth mental images of France, Germany, and the like: European countries becoming nation states. In today’s world, however, the most impactful nationalist projects are not the “nationalist” parties in these countries, but rather the nationalisms of former second and third world countries.
As such, nationalism plays a key role in the “rise of the Global South”. Robert B. Marks notes in the 2007 book, The Origins of the Modern World, that the association between “modern” society and the West is a pretty short parenthesis in world history. It’s thus, we might reason, likely to balance out as modern society spreads and takes root across the world. A very similar line of argument is detailed in the particular comparison between the industrialization of Europe and China in Kenneth Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence. Should we be so surprised by the ferocity of Chinese nationalism when this chasm is closed? Likewise, Janet L. Abu-Lugod details the time Before European Hegemony in her work with that title, and by that she refers to the late middle ages. The greatest nationalist movements of today all seek to challenge this hegemony, this dominance of the West—and that’s not always a good thing, as such vengeful nationalism is often a violent and anti-democratic one.
Finally, one could mention the work of economic development and poverty scholars like John Ibister, who in Promises Not Kept details the many betrayals of the rich world vis-à-vis poor countries. Naturally, such narratives of economic subjugation and disrespect tend to fuel nationalist movements that resist the Global North and seek to establish Global South sovereignty, solidarity, and pride.
Naturally, Russia very deliberately caters to this aspect of nationalism in today’s world when its government maintains that they’re invading Ukraine in “the fight for a multipolar world”. Many people around the world cannot help but be enthused: Shall this spell the end of Western hegemony, of hurt pride, of promises not kept?
- Nationalism is a search for roots, for emotional grounding, in the fragmented condition of postmodernity (Friedman)
Jonathan Friedman, the anthropologist, is also a bit of a friend of my own. His way of understanding nationalism is a multifaceted one that I shall have to simplify for the sake of argument.
In his 1994 work, Cultural Identity and Global Process, Friedman touches upon nationalism many times. He means that globalization uproots and confuses our identities. People thus respond by looking to spark or revive nationalist identities—it’s not only postcolonial nationalism that is rising, so is Flemish, Basque, Scottish, and so on. As such, nationalism far from always integrates societies; separatist nationalists also destabilize and disintegrate them. This form of nationalism increases with globalization, and while it is to a significant extent caused by globalization, it is also inherent to the resistance towards (and the backlash against) it that we know today.
- Nationalism can be a form of resistance against globalization “from below”, revitalizing local and national histories (Overgaard, Andersen)
Morten Overgaard, also a friend not-of-the-same-political-views-as-myself, has envisioned a new role for nationalism in the established of future societies and economies (which he, using a the same term as I do, calls “metamodern”, although attaching a different meaning to the term).
For Overgaard, nationalism can be used to create the organic bonds that should be activated for “national collective intelligence”—hence detaching more and more of the economy from the processes of globalization and establishing a more commons-based economy, where the solidarity required for the commons to function builds on nationalist, cultural cohesion. This is discussed in his book, National Collective Intelligence. In my mind, there are too many possible slides into far-right aberrations for this to be a viable path.
Another Danish acquaintance, Lene Andersen, is less attracted perhaps to nationalism as such, but nevertheless argues for the establishment of stronger local, national, or regional (e.g. pan-Scandinavian) identities as vehicles for greater Bildung (German term, roughly meaning education in a holistic sense). She also associates this with “metamodern” future societies (as with Overgaard, though, in a manner that differs from my own). This is, I would say, a learned form of nationalism concerned with the interface between tradition and the psychological development of a population. Andersen lays this out in her book, The Nordic Secret.
Wartime economies like Ukraine’s actually don’t fall so far away from the visions of Overgaard and Andersen: people are cooperating and exchanging in distinctly non-capitalist manners based on national identity (Overgaard) and are actively seeking to protect their cultural heritage from destruction and viewing this as a test of personal character (Andersen).
- Nationalism expresses a deeper underlying “clash of civilizations” (Huntington)
An argument that is very well-known but cannot be missed if this list is to be exhaustive is that of political scientist Samuel Huntington. In his classical The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington holds that it’s not nations that will be the center as our world progresses into a new age: it’s larger communities of nations, bound together by deep, underlying, civilizational patterns and heritages.
The clash of civilizations according to Huntington (1996) The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. From Wikipedia.
Although the war in Ukraine can certainly be perceived as Ukraine fundamentally being torn between two such civilizational spheres, there are, however, also many counter-examples to Huntington’s predictions: Orthodox countries like Bulgaria, Greece and Romania closely aligning themselves with the West, not fellow Orthodox Russia; Confucian countries like South Korea and Taiwan, together with the insular civilization of Japan, also aligning with the West against China and Russia; Islamic countries more (or at least equally) interested in clashing with fellow Muslim countries as with other civilizations; and so on. In the case of Ukraine today, the “cleft country” aspect seems to have more or less vanished through the war with Russia, uniting the entire country, Western Ukrainian-speakers as well as Eastern Russian-speakers, against the Kremlin-controlled invaders.
That Ukraine and most of Orthodox Eastern Europe seems to have “defected” to the West, does not, however, take anything away from the fact that most Russians generally tend to identify with being a distinct Orthodox civilization that is different and in opposition to the West. The same can be said about the nature of Chinese nationalism, or Indian for that matter, not to mention the role of Islam in shaping identities in the Middle East.
In Huntington’s view, then, nationalism is a strong force, but it has deeper, pan-civilizational undercurrents that should not be underestimated.
- Nationalism is also resisted by “transnationalism from below”
In Transnationalism from Below (1998), an anthology by Michael P. Smith and Luis E. Guarnizo showed with plenty of examples that our common sense notion that “nationalism happens from below” and “transnationalism happens from above” is often a mistaken one. It just as often happens, mostly in the third world, that nationalist projects of nation states are faced by resistance from below, which swear by transnational solidarities and identities.
Poor peasants resisting the corporate influence on governments in Latin America, Mexican migrants resisting national borders, Hong Kong’s resistance against China’s nationalism—these are transnational by nature, working against nationalist projects, but without having any “global state” or the like in mind. This is a popular trope to study for social scientists, so further anthologies provide a flood of book chapters. Roxann Prazniak and Arif Dirlik have edited another one, titled Places and Politics in an Age of Globalization. In its ninth chapter, for instance, anthropologist Arturo Escobar (also an acquaintance) details how the mainstream versions of “economic development” are challenged from below, by those who should purportedly be developed by someone else.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s work, Assemblage, could be said to follow a similar pattern: movements of resistance and solidarity exist around the world—feminist, queer, indigenous, minority, worker, environmentalist,, precariat, and so forth—and these all need to challenge national vestiges of power. Hence, they tend to ally and link up transnationally, however provisional and practically limited such “assemblages” of movements may be. This is also, thus, a transnationalism from below.
In the context of the Ukrainian war, you might notice how the LGBTQ+ communities scramble to show solidarity with Ukrainian peers. This is not a nationalist move—it is a transnational solidarity that resists the logic of nationalism.
- Nationalism can be reconstructed as planetary belonging
My friend Jeremy Johnson has argued in his chapter in the 2021 volume, Metamodernity, that it makes more sense to speak of the “planetary” than the “global”, because the former seems to encompass a wider view. It’s not just that people interact “across the globe”—it’s that we’re all part of one and the same planet, with a shared history that dives into the biological and geological processes we live by.
This theme can be reflected in other thinkers. In Paul Raskin’s (founder of the Tellus Institute) book, Journey to Earthland, the argument is made that, if national identity could be formed around abstract countries, it should also be possible to create a “country” that spans across the earth in its entirety, as a planetary system. For Raskin’s imagined country, “Earthland”, globalism is the new nationalism. It commits to shared values and common interests, but otherwise leaves more room for unique cultural expressions than nationalism did.
Raskin does not truly respond to the theorists who emphasize the necessity of us-and-thems for national identity to even exist (who is the “other” of Earthland? Mars?)—but read together with Johnson’s shift from “global to planetary”, he at least makes an interesting claim: that people could become as enamored with the emerging planetary identity as they have been with their nations. He points out that nationalism also arose from smaller social units and tribes.
From this perspective, the Ukrainian war could be viewed not as much as a struggle between nation states, but rather as one between nationalist movements and early forms of planetary ones: “Earthland” is emerging through the transnational support of Ukraine. Perhaps nationalism for Earthland could, after all, become a power to reckon with?
- Nationalism can be reconstructed as bioregionalism
Finally. While globalist cosmopolitans dream of Earthland, deep ecologists dream of a return to the earth in another manner: that the future of political organization should be based on the ecosystems that people are part of, that they live in.
This position is called bioregionalism because it means that your home would be defined not by nations as we have known them, but by the bioregions we inhabit. For such deep ecologists, it makes more sense to define and protect the borders of the specific part of nature you live on together with other people. If nations were to be redefined as bioregions, the entire identity, institutions, and customs could be harmonized with the environment.
The future of national identity would thus be to morph into bioregionalism. Although there is undeniably an increasing interest in reconnecting with the environment around the world, to me the bioregionalists fail to understand just how strong the current form of nationalism is. Thus far, very few people die for their bioregions (indigenous activists in the Amazon, etc., would be the counter example).
But maybe there is more to it: If there is a positive future for nationalism, perhaps it could at least draw upon bioregionalist influences? Looking at the Ukrainian war again, it holds true that environmental aspects of geopolitics and nationalist struggle were activated around Chernobyl. Ukrainians needed to identify with the soil itself, as the presence of the invader became an environmental security threat.
Multi-Perspectivalism or Astrology?
I have long maintained that “whoever has the most perspectives when they die, wins”. I hope I have hereby contributed to a victorious death on your behalf.
But there is, undeniably, a disconcerting part of this exercise:
It is that pretty much all of the 20 perspectives can, with a bit of imagination and finding the facts that happen to suit their different claims, seem to describe and at least in part explain e.g. the conflict in Ukraine. At the same time, many of the perspectives seem to contradict one another. It sounds eerily like astrology: Read the Gemini, and you’re it! Read the Libra, you’re probably also it!
If seemingly contradictory theories can be confirmed with the same cases, is this not just a sign of the hopelessness of any social science? Should we give up—it’s little better than astrology, after all? The “clarity of mind” we gain from adopting one perspective over the other may be entirety illusory. We’re seeing patterns in the world because we’re teaching ourselves to look for those very patterns.
Here’s what I hold. Simply cataloguing perspectives and applying them is not enough to make us much wiser. It’s the first step, yes. These 20 perspectives are building blocks for your reasoning. They’re there to jog your mind, to help you get out of preconceived notions. It’s easy to see that anyone who doesn’t know of one of these perspectives is less smart for it.
But the next step is to coordinate the different perspectives—to offer a synthesis, a path forward for nationalism that is congruent with metamodernist values and Protopian goals. This shall be the topic of my next piece.
Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.