How Do We Transform Nationalism into a Force for Good?

In my previous article on nationalism, 20 Ways to Understand Nationalism (in Ukraine and the World), I argued that the nation remains perhaps the strongest known social force to ever explode on this planet.
This, however, takes nothing away from the fact that the nation is a social construction and that it has emerged through wider and deeper historical processes: nations and national identities as we know them today were forged only when the larger world system of trade, technology, and information flows allowed for their existence.

A cosmopolitan heart—one that seeks to expand upon human solidarity and engender (what I have called) Protopian futures that protect meaningful, rich, and historically rooted local identities and communities while linking these to world-wide goals like curbing climate change, maintaining peace, eradicating poverty, and protecting non-human animals—cannot afford to ignore the power of nationalism.

The Case for Transformative Nationalism

Of course, the socially-constructed nature of nationalism doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take it seriously. Money, for instance, is also “just” a social construction, but nonetheless a very powerful one that shapes and steers our lives whether we like it or not.

This should give us hope and pride: even though, like any powerful social construct, there is a very serious essence to it, certain non-arbitrary natural and rational roots, it doesn’t mean, however, that we should take the idea of the nation at face value. The degree to which it is a social construct is the degree to which we have the agency to decide upon which world we’ll live in: arbitrary choices went into construction yesterday and there will be rational choices to be made tomorrow. The nation is a work in progress.

Point being, we have to be both serious and playful with nationalism. We have to engage in the “serious play” with the nationalism so as to harvest its power for the good of the planet.

Just as with the stance on “transculturalism” vis-à-vis identity/culture, so the metamodern mind must take an “ironically-sincere” stance towards nations, nationalism, patriotism, and identity—weaving these forces as intelligently and ethically as possible on a case-to-case basis.

I thus suggest the position of transformative nationalism. This is a position that recognizes the inescapable power wielded by nations and nationalism as manners to coordinate millions of people across time and space, providing a sense of hope, pride, meaning, and even transcendence to their citizens—but at the same time views national projects as always being subject to potential transformations in a more desirable direction. We are all transformed by the nations we live by—but at the same time, by sociologically grasping these forces, we can in turn transform how our nations bring forth identities, not only within each nation, but also identities that go beyond the nation, that reach upwards towards the universal, and inwards towards the personal and introspective.

In other words, we will need to continue to deal with the fact that nationalism exists—so we may as well make the best of it. There is reason to assume that we currently have the nations and nationalism we deserve. We should strive towards nationalist projects that truly deserve our hearts, hopes, and struggles.

In regards to the nation, the metamodern mind is committed to a particularity in service of the universal. This means that our particularities of identity, expression, and sovereignty are defensible and justifiable only when they are also non-parasitic parts of a larger whole. Hence, nationalism is pathological when it oppresses smaller units and when it corrodes larger systems, but benevolent when it protects smaller units and contributes to cosmopolitan collaboration. Or to put it in simpler terms yet: Nations and nationalism are “good” to the extent that they foster pro-social behaviors, and “evil” to the extent that they hinder solidarity and spur aggression.

Oh, if it were only so easy! As readers will be acutely aware, we live in a world of paradoxes. People act with aggression and cruelty because they are faced with genuine dilemmas, because life itself lands us all in complex and ambiguous situations, where defending one good often entails undermining and destroying another. We are all “defenders”, chosen by fate, we tell ourselves, to fight for one good at the expense of something else that we perceive as less good.

The best we can do, thus, is to develop a kind of moral compass in regard to this most powerful of social forces. Here, we can allow ourselves the patriotic love of our nations, their romanticized pasts, customs, and traditions. If something is endowed with such a high status, as to be worthy of our sacrifices and even our deaths, it makes perfect sense to question what those projects are, and how they reflect ethics worth defending.

Nationalism in and of itself is not parochial or regressive. The will of the citizens in Ukraine to define themselves as a distinct nation with a right to a sovereign state not ruled from Moscow is obviously not regressive. The same can be said about the Indian struggle for independence from the British Empire, and the countless other nations that won their independence during the process of decolonialization in the second half of the 20th century. Nationalism replaced the increasingly outdated notion of empire in Europe during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a similar process took place in the rest of the world following the Second World War. In that regard, nationalism has clearly been a progressive force—even if excesses, mistakes, and tragedies do litter these histories of emancipation.

On today’s global scene there is arguably a pertinent lack of imagination concerning the roles and goals of national projects and thus for nationalist pride worthy of our love and sacrifice. As such, it is of no surprise that Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion spurs such engagement from people around the world: finally, people feel, there is a struggle worth hoping for.

But there are little glimmers of what future national identities could be built around. The President of Costa Rica just announced that his country is making a commitment to adopt the Inner Development Goals framework, building on what he calls “a long-standing tradition of peace, human rights, respect, and sustainable development”. (I have recently discussed similar visions here and here). This is just one example of when national pride is being redefined, nationalism transformed: Could it be a matter of national pride to develop the inner qualities and civic virtues of its administration and citizenry at large?

What other transformative nationalisms are possible? Could countries begin to build identities less based on wealth, power, and prestige, and more on “being a good country for the world”—as described by the Good Country Index? The usual suspect, Sweden, currently tops that list, and Swedes tend to be somewhat smug about it, with their Nobel prize tradition and so forth. But there is increasingly good reasons to believe that the most vital and interesting such projects may come from the Global South.

Could there even be a transnational order—or a planetary order—that scaffolds and spurs on such engagement, or other forms of imaginary community yet to be imagined?

I am writing this from a library where they currently celebrate “Europe day”, with free lectures and presentations on the topic. Europe, the EU, as an idea and ideal, is an interesting step along the way—a continent-wide and vision that links to a wider, if somewhat bland, sense of identity, hitherto falling short of the visceral emotions we associate with nationalism. But the very fact that it is happening underscores the point: nationalism can be transformed, and through it, we can transform our inter-human (all-too-human) relationships.

The Problem with Nationalism

Let us begin with a simple sociology of the inherent problem with nationalism: a way to gauge when nationalism becomes a force of evil.

The problem with nationalism arises when it subjects other levels of identity to its own logic. We have been accustomed to that national identity has been the primary, but identity is multi-layered and its different layers must be balanced and cultivated on their own terms.

There are roughly seven layers of identity, from the individual to the planetary:

  1. Individual
  2. Group (or Movements)
  3. Incorporated Group (Company, NGO, pre-modern state)
  4. Platform/System (The Market, Media, Parties, Industry Orgs. etc.)
  5. State (Modern state)
  6. Transnational Cooperation
  7. Planetary Governance

As you can see here, the modern nation state is level five.

According to Francis Fukuyama, the modern state is defined by having a centralized, merit-based bureaucracy that is able to register its population, levy uniform taxes, control the military, and regulate society. Such an entity emerged for the first time in history in China with the Qin Dynasty in 221 B.C., but in Europe it wasn’t until the 19th century that a similar level of political development was reached. It was only with the full bloom of democracy that a truly “level 5” state came into being—the state as we view it today.

Prior to that, as students of history are often taught, states were more akin to companies than they were to modern states: the point of politics was to generate wealth and revenue to whomever was in charge. It is thus a telling sign that the colonial empires that the Europeans built were initially privately owned trading companies (level 3—the “incorporated group”, i.e. a group that becomes a legal entity) which later evolved into colonial empires, multinational trading blocks (level 4) governed from a central nation state (level 5). The imbalance between a modern level 5 nation state in Europe submitting far-away territories to a level 4 logic with the intention of level 3 gains (profit for capital owners) was thus a socially, economically and politically unsustainable endeavor in a rapidly modernizing world. The push for level 5 structures world-wide, which necessitates corresponding national identity to go along with it, should thus be seen as a necessary and healthy progression.

“Level 5”, the modern state with democracy, human rights, freedom of speech and association, and a market economy, provides a framework for all of the four lower levels to act according to their own logics. However imperfectly, that is its function: It allows for individuals to go about their business, protecting them from one another (level 1); it allows for loose groups and movements to form (say, climate protesters gathering on Fridays—level 2); it allows for businesses to register as legal entities and become groups whose members can be exchanged, but can still be held legally responsible for one another (level 3); it offers community of national media, as these discuss the common interests within the state’s jurisdiction, a currency, and a market for businesses and labor unions (level 4); and it reproduces itself as a national identity, through national education, while maintaining a monopoly of violence with the army and the police, while setting standards for how laws are made for all the other levels to interact (level 5).

Now, what happens if a small group, say a network of rich families (level 2), hijack the level 5 state structures for their own benefit? You get corruption. The level 5 structure starts acting in manners that benefit only this smaller group, while oppressing individuals (level 1), other groups (level 2), businesses (level 3), and skews truth-seeking in media and fair play on the market (level 4). You get a nasty combination of corruption and corresponding oppression—so as to uphold the interests of the smaller group.

Fundamentally, what you get is a short-circuited information feedback system. The current situation in Russia comes to mind.

There are milder versions of such corruption. What happens if large corporate agents unduly influence policy making, such as in the United States? Level 3 has too much control over level 5: corruption. Or what happens if the most public platforms (level 4) are run by profit-seeking level 3 agents? You get Facebook/Meta, Twitter, Amazon, and the rest of our platform capitalism economy—also a form of corruption.

When “the party” runs a state, like in China, you have a level 4 agent that has colonized the entirety of level 5—it’s even in the name: “a party” means a part; a part is running the whole. There are some advantages to collapsing the social order in this manner, namely that you can more easily coordinate the entire market if you directly control it. But, of course, it comes at the expense of the oppression of agents on all the levels.

At the very worst end of the spectrum, you have single individuals like Colonel Gadhafi or Kim Jong Un running the entire state structure—with disastrous results. Corruption and oppression always go together, sooner or later. At the most trivial level, you have things like peer pressure—a group oppressing the free expression of an individual, or a peer group being dominated by one particularly tenacious person.

What we have seen again and again in history is how the sheer coordinating power of the fifth layer of social emergence, the state layer, is manipulated by smaller groups. In all such cases, the nationalism that is engendered is skewed away from universal interests and harnessed to maintain the power of the few over the many—and such consolidation of power can only be justified by the threatening enemies at the door or in the backyard. Here, nationalist fervor always becomes aggressive. Level 2 groups, be they Jews or Armenians, or even class enemies that are thought to be contrary to the patriotic project, are targeted and persecuted. Or, of course, foreign nations.

Likewise, we can also see how maintaining national identity at level 5 can hinder higher, more abstract forms of solidarity: think the nationalist resurgence across Europe and the United States in recent decades. The transnational solidarity of our nationalist anti-immigration parties—in terms of aiding refugees or committing to ambitious climate goals—is, to put it mildly, rather scant.

So, the inherent problem with nationalism is that it can be misused for less-than-national purposes under the guise of national cohesion and universality—and that it has a natural “roof” in that it by definition does not include transnational and planetary solidarities. The nation has to be a ‘conductor’: a part of the international whole and a whole to the individual parts and a part of the international whole and a; to not usurp international order for the sake of its interest and to not be usurped by the private interests of some individuals.

The Richer Tapestry of Identities

For thriving and flourishing future societies to emerge, we must thus situate the forces of nationalism with identities pertaining to the six other layers of social emergence.

A person is not only the citizen of a certain nation-state—even if totalitarian states do their best to colonize all other identities and subsume them under the national one—she is, as we have already stated:

  1. A unique individual with a life story and identity of their very own.
  2. A member of groups, families, communities, networks, and movements.
  3. A member of certain companies or organizations.
  4. A certain class and social position within the wider platforms of society.
  5. And yes, a citizen of a nation, but also…
  6. A member of a transnational gathering of nations (say, “the West”, the communist world, “the international community” with the UN, etc.)
  7. And an earthling, one way or another, with her feet on the ground on this planet of ours, under the same sky and the same sun, even sharing a history with all life, even a cosmic history going back to the big bang for all we know.

Nationalism has now, for the better part of two centuries, been the strongest of these forces—not because it is the most important identity for most of us (by far the most of us care more about our own stories and our families, for instance: even Stalin was shocked to hear that a boy snitched on his own father during the Soviet purges), but because it has been able to spur the emotional energy of many people simultaneously, thus coordinating so much human agency across time and space. True, private enterprise is now also entering the space race—but it is a telling sign that nations, not companies, have had such a head start in this field, and that the general public has expressed much more excitement about planting the flag of their nation on the moon than vanity space flights for billionaires.

Nations and nationalism have coordinated the identities and efforts of individuals, groups, companies/organizations, media landscapes and markets, and nation-building projects. That’s why nationalism is so powerful.

But identity and meaning-making do not begin, nor end, with national loyalties and identities.

Our moral compass should thus be guided by a sense of balance of these seven layers of social emergence. The point is not to destroy nationalism in a bout of cosmopolitan or localist-municipalist fervor and relegate it to the dustbin of history, but to balance it with these other forces—so that it may co-emerge more harmoniously with all of them.

In many parts of the world, where “level 5” is not yet fully online and functional, this may very well mean to establish stronger and more resilient state structures—curbing corruption, tribalism (voting only for own ethnic group parties for clientelist policies, etc.), and, yes, instilling a sense of patriotism for the national project. Ukraine is arguably seeing such a moment right now: The current president Zelenskyy’s background as an actor and comedian of the anti-corruption comedy show The Servant of the People and coming to power with a party of the same name, speaks to this. Before the war began, most observers were adamant that Zelenskyy was failing in his battle against corruption in Ukraine—but the surge of patriotism experienced over the last months may very well be a turning point. People will perhaps be more ready to report taxes when a spirit of patriotic pride has been instilled through the struggles and sacrifices of the war effort, with the whole world watching.

But for many parts of the world, the Western countries perhaps primarily, this balance can and should be loaded more towards engendering more transnational and planetary identities (levels 6 and 7)—not least as our economies and work lives are already increasingly virtual and beyond national borders. Interestingly enough, there is a case to be made that no genuine nationalist pride will likely resurge until we can begin to see our nationalist projects as parts of larger, transnational and even planetary wholes. A nation is formed in the struggle against other nations, but it becomes mature in cooperation with them. Self-aware, self-critical nationhood is the ground of international peace.

Can your country be the best at creating peaceful transnational relations, for a sustainable and sane relationship to the ecologies we live by? For this to occur, we must engender transnational and planetary identities that are deeply rooted within us, so that we can begin to demand of our nations that they make us proud vis-à-vis the larger scheme of things. Lacking such identities, we will likely continue to view our own nations as dislocated, afloat in a confusing world “out there”, and we will continue to be tempted by promises to “save the nation” to “make it great again” and so on. And, as we have seen, such nationalist sentiments are not genuinely universal even for the members of their own nations—they are almost always drawn upon and activated by smaller interest groups; they are always manipulated by agents at the lower layers. They don’t lead to patriotic cohesion, but to yet greater corruption.

A national identity that I would be genuinely proud of, and prepared to make large sacrifices for and studiously file my taxes for, is one that protects individual life stories and the sanctity of private life, while actively creating the generative conditions for groups and communities to form and experiment with ways of life, while being a homestead for ideals and values that include all humans, non-human animals, and the environment. Rooting our identities in such universalist strivings can give us the bearings to transform our national identities into something we can truly be proud of. My nation would be the one that is the best at engendering the conditions for Protopia to emerge—i.e. a society that balances its information systems so that corruption and oppression are minimized, which is to say that freedom, in a deep sense of the word, is increased. It is a place where many little forms of the beautiful life become possible.

This shift entails, of course, a change in how history is taught: The educational system can and should root our histories in all seven layers. It is when viewed within this richer tapestry of identities that nationalism falls into place as a force for good: My nation is worth fighting for, not because it happens to be mine and we’re better than others, but because I can see its role in a greater scheme of things. At least to me, that feels transcendent. If I haven’t bowed to any flags lately, it’s because I haven’t found any I’m sufficiently proud of.

Through the UN and other transnational bodies, we do have some beginnings of transnational identity or civil society. But these are weak and very imperfect. I would suggest that the next truly fruitful nationalist project comes in the form of actively establishing a firm sense of transnational and planetary identity in the population—that this in and of itself becomes a source of national pride: we are the people who deign look skywards.

Costa Rica surprised us with its new commitment to the Inner Development Goals. But could this be the beginning of a surge of nationalist projects where pride comes from becoming bastions of cosmopolitan values that marry inner development to what is common to all of us?

Panarchy: Designing the Nation for a Protopian Future

Daniel Fraga, a Portuguese architect and friend of mine, recently released a new book with the title Ontological Design: Subject is Project. The notion that “subject is project” means that we must either design ourselves and one another by affecting our contracts, or, be designed by others without having much influence on the matter. The design of national identities is thus also one of designing the “political (hu)man”.

Although many aspects of our national identities can be said to have emerged organically throughout the centuries, there is little doubt that deliberate “design choices” have been made and carried out and coordinated on behalf of state actors and activists loyal to the state’s nation-building projects. As I have argued above, benevolent and malevolent nationalism are functions of informational architectures: The challenge is to create networks of information that balance the seven categories of identity with one another.

It is not a simple question of “social engineering” versus “letting things evolve organically”, since what evolves organically is necessarily the results of so many different agents attempting to shape (and, yes, engineer) their social environments—from a singular people to states. Hey, even animals do it when they build nests. What we think of as “social engineering” in the negative sense of the term is only the result of when states have over-stretched and transgressed the boundaries of individuals, groups, and so on. Rather, it is a question of weaving more balanced control over information with an eye to how the interactions play out: How can freedom and creativity be increased at each of the layers, without trampling the freedom and creativity of other layers? Very often, this comes down to free access to shared, relevant information.

Talking of how we co-create ourselves as political subjects with certain civic virtues comes with a nasty history of homo sovieticus: the idea that you could transform people into good socialists by education, upbringing, and propaganda. But, again, this failed case of social engineering only bespeaks how important it is that state power and its identity projects are balanced. We all got our values from somewhere; we were all taught and molded to some extent. The question is only if we should turn our gazes back at the machinery that molds us and begin to ask more of it—to hold it to greater public scrutiny. Can we partake in ontological designs that inspire us more, while allowing us to remain the sublimely mediocre little people we always were? If national identities already did design us, is it not within our right to ask how national identity itself is designed?

What inspirational stories or narratives must thus be weaved for us to converge around globally, still honoring the richness of civilizations and cultures around the world, while respecting our personal integrities?

Let me take a stab. A tentative one. But I think we should allow ourselves visions in these dreary times. Visions held with sincere irony.

The Metamodernist vision, its “Protopia”, is not one of a cosmopolitan “world state” or the like—not a monoculture, not a monolith. A “world state” would still be a level 5 structure, but a level 5 structure masked as a level 7 structure oppressing its subordinate level 5 and 6 structures. This would be as unsustainable as the colonial empires of yore.

Instead, we need to go from the current “anarchy between states” as described by realist scholars of international relations to a “panarchy”—an ordered network within which multiple forms of statecraft can be experimented with, albeit within some basic planetary frameworks of human rights and ecological boundaries. As such, new self-definitions of Ethnos and Demos (the organic and systemic aspects of our national identities, as I defined in the last article, point 2 of 20) can be experimented with, as well as the emergent relationships between the two. We don’t need fewer identities, we need a greater multiplicity of them, but converging around a few generic traits that impede them from exploiting one another.

Thus, the narrative and vision of the planetary layer 7 is not an almighty “global state”, waiting to be hijacked from below by all the six other layers, eventually likely collapsing into a global totalitarian dictatorship, and from there on into mayhem. It is a loose but resilient framework that holds the space for state-level structures to emerge, to transform, and to adapt in interaction with one another. It is a widely (but never universally) agreed upon set of regulations for transnational relations and expectations upon what states may and may not do—while still investing in the creation of new governance structures where needed, at the levels of social emergence needed (1 to 7). Its ultimate role is not to rule the world, nor even to unite it. States that breach the planetary norms would not be invaded, but find a concerted lack of cooperation from the planetary community, ultimately making them less likely to increase their power—like a bad-tempered kid on the playground with whom the other kids refuse to play.

Simply put, the role of the planetary layer 7 is to balance out all of the layers below it, so that they stop oppressing (higher layer colonizes lower ones) or corrupting (lower layer colonizes higher one) one another. It is a framework that monitors and regulation these complex interrelations, and makes them publicly visible and known as shared information. Layer 7 does not control the lower layers; it must be construed such that it brings forth the conditions for each of them to flourish according to their respective social dynamics.

The dream I propose is thus not a united world—but at least a somewhat successfully coordinated one. One that has “harmony” not at the surface layer, as in no visible tensions or open conflicts, but harmony in a more underlying sense that systems of information are balanced so as to decrease corruption and oppression. Its principle is that power is not misused—and that points of tension are skillfully addressed with an eye to their transformational potential.

Such a “panarchy” must also include an increased individual liberty to choose national identities and loyalties while having greater capacities to migrate and reintegrate (along the lines of what Song and Jenkins have discussed, point 8 in the last article). The panarchy would work to increase people’s rights to choose their countries, making voting with one’s feet an increasing possibility, which in turn would lead to different state structures attracting the people most likely to thrive within them.

As such, states and national identities would be subject to transformation, while experimenting with ways to design whole worlds for people to live in, and thus be shaped by. The end result of such a vision is not one blueprint for how states should be governed and identities formed, but rather a patchwork of increasingly specialized and niched states that serve vital functions for one another, based on their economies, forms of governance, and identities. This is why I call it “transformational nationalism”; it is the national pride that demands of our nations that they transform into something better than they have hitherto been. It is a national pride in the uniqueness of the national project and its role in the world, pride in the striving of the national project to become a meaningful part of our own evolving journeys as relational beings.

It is not entirely unlike what the nation state (level 5) did for the company (level 3): but setting frameworks for it be registered in the abstract as a legal entity and function on a market, it unlocked an untold experimentation with ever specializing endeavors. I am not saying that our nations should be like companies; I am saying that they have the untapped potential to be as flexible and creative as our companies have been. This, I hold, would result not in a monolithic world, but in a widely multiplistic world, where there is an underlying implicit order to the chaos. It is not a journey without risks, but it is one within which national pride can be used for truly inspiring and worthwhile projects.

Somewhere to Start

Naturally, visions such as these bring forth more questions than answers. On what basis should the panarchic layer 7 build its power, if it is not based on a global monopoly of violence, for one? (Hint: free, public information, based on the principle of the commons, but it’s a longer story). But without the beginnings of transnational identities, blooming into increasingly planetary ones, it is difficult to see how a planetary civil society could emerge that could put forward the necessary solutions and hold nations to such standards.

I hold that nationalist pride can and should be harnessed to work towards such ends, even as the project must necessarily be an open-ended one. With enough shared sense of direction, however, I believe that a growing global population of people with a strong planetary identity can begin to form the basis for the many movements and institutions necessary for such a world to come into being. While the panarchy cannot be based solely on the power of states, pressing for state agents to act in its direction is an inevitable step along the way. And for that, a strengthened planetary civil society within different countries is needed.

At this point, I would simply suggest that it should become a self-aware point of national pride to innovate and drive forth the possibility of such a development. The nations that are first movers in this regard will likely be richly rewarded—with populations identifying with transnational and planetary perspectives, they will likely function better than others on the global scene.

The human web generated the nation-state through processes of trade and technology that lie beyond it. But this same “human web” that now spans across our planet has yet to reintegrate the sheer force of nationalism into a larger whole, a larger whole that brings forth greater multiplicity and creativity untold.

Creativity is dangerous, of course. As is multiplicity. But they are ultimately what life is about—so I hold it’s worth dreaming dangerously.

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.