Ideology | The death of civic nationalism
What comes after will be ugly.
Ernest Renan was a 19th century French philologist who helped develop the idea of the nation as it is most commonly understood in the West today. It is an idea of the nation as a spiritual enterprise that is linked through time by a common story. Renan laid the foundations for what we call civic nationalism. This is what might be termed ‘open nationalism’, the nation as a story that can be learned by anyone – regardless of race, ethnicity, or religion. The nation as an entity with a common story and common laws that constitute a spiritual existence.
“A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things, which in truth are but one, constitute this soul or spiritual principle. One lies in the past, one in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present- day consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. Man, Gentlemen, does not improvise. The nation, like the individual, is the culmination of a long past of endeavours, sacrifice, and devotion.” What is a Nation? (1882)
Renan formulated this vision of the nation in response to those nationalists of blood who insisted that the nation has to be based on the foundations of biological identity – essentially racial, but at one remove also ethnic.
His arguments are familiar to anyone today who has seen the unfolding debates around nation, identity, the alt-right, liberalism, Trump, Brexit, and civic nationalism over the past few years.
Renan has not, at least to my knowledge, been turned into a meme yet. But his mocking of blood nationalists for fascination with unachievable and ahistorical ‘blood purity’ captures many similar exchanges on Twitter and other social media today. When a person sends round pictures of multiple human skulls from across the world inscribed with the legend “Can you tell which race is which?” he is making a point familiar to Renan. The story is what matters. You cannot tell the difference between skulls. The language is what matters. Forget the illusion of biology. Anthropology was one thing, said Renan, but it was not useful for understanding politics, literature, and emotion.
Renan pointed out that the most racially mixed nations are the strongest: hybrid vigrour, a nation of immigrants, and being a mongrel is best. These points are still made in response to blood nationalists today, and these were the responses that Renan gave to the blood nationalists of his time.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
Renan observed how carelessly the nations were woven together, with different people drawn into a polity from many backgrounds. And yet, he says, the nation exists. The people are not so important, but their common life and story are essential.
The fight goes deeper still. Renan holds out for a separation between language and anthropology. Biological reality, Renan maintained, cannot overly influence the development of spirit and language. We frame these debates, crudely, in the form of postmodernism versus scientific materialism today. But postmodernism is to a certain extent a bugaboo. It is a new label for the very same debate that was going on in the 19th century, long before postmodernism had been conceived. It is a debate between language and biology. It is a debate between art and science.
Renan’s opponents at the time were mainly Germans obsessed with tracing the blood purity of particular villages. In Renan’s opponents we look back and see an intimation of the Nazi terror to come. Those Germans obsessed with blood purity were not all talking about Aryans, but the foundations for the First and Second World Wars were being laid down in these late 19th century discussions. Renan’s best arguments were not enough to frustrate the progress of the nationalists of blood.
Insofar as the West has been nationalist in the postwar period, we have been civic nationalists in the spirit of Renan. The nation is a spiritual ideal and that ideal is open to anyone who adopts its laws and customs.
The author Bruce Chatwin summed this up when he was travelling in former French Africa. He observed young African girls running from their lycée clutching French novels to their chests. This perfectly exemplifies the spirit of civic nationalism. Indeed, there were men in French Africa who felt they had a better claim to being Frenchmen than those in the continental European provinces of Alsace and Lorraine. They had lived years longer under the spirit of the French nation than those who had lived intermittently under German administration. They knew their Racine.
French nationalism probably comes closer than any other form of nationalism to renouncing the nationalism of blood. It is inconceivable that a nationalist of blood would consider a black African as being more French than a native of Alsace and Lorraine. But French nationalism takes the reverse stance; it is all about the common story and language.
The problem for civic nationalism is that our common history of sacrifice and suffering has broken down almost completely in the West. We have also lost the common life that Renan believed was essential for a nation.
The reasons for this are fourfold.
The first is the collapse of the unified media environment. Civic nationalism requires a unified national story. People need to be told about the story of sacrifice and share a common social life. The printing press, cinema, radio, and television achieved this magnificently. But, over the past twenty years, our media environment has been completely fragmented. There is no longer a common national story, we are all picking our own adventure. We have gone from almost complete coordination to complete fragmentation in a generation.
This partly explains why politics in the West – and the world more generally – has taken on a more frantic and bizarre nature. People often say that our world feels uncanny. The uncanniness derives in part from the fact that we no longer live in a shared story. Certain events, once comprehensible as part of a national story through unified media, are now completely strange and bewildering to large sections of the population.
Secondly, mass immigration has brought people into the European nations who cannot necessarily identify with a shared history of sacrifice and struggle. This is because they are descended from former imperial subjects. Their relatives may have served with the imperial armies in national wars and so identify easily with the national struggle, but their relatives could just have easily been oppressed by those same armies in the imperial provinces. Some immigrants can identify with the national struggle, but others will regard it as completely alien.
The position of, say, a person of Indian descent in Britain is ambiguous. Their relatives may have fought against the Germans with the British in both world wars making it easy for them to situate themselves in the national story, or their relatives may have been imprisoned and persecuted by the British during the struggle against imperialism.
The situation is ambiguous, and it only becomes more ambiguous as European countries undergo demographic change. This also cuts two ways, for the European governments and educational establishment circumscribe elements of the previous national story with regard to the imperial period in order to accommodate new citizens. The result is one where neither group, neither the long-standing nation nor the immigrants, is really following the same story.
The point is not that it is impossible to integrate immigrants into the national story. The point is that the challenge is substantial enough to frustrate the nation as conceived by Renan, especially when the matter of imperial history is in play.
Thirdly, a change in ideologically temper – here we are justified in using the word postmodernism – has introduced a spirit of radical scepticism into the humanities in the West. More than this, the animating spirit of this movement is a Nietzschean desire to philosophise with a hammer.
A large group in the intellectual elite wants to smash everything up. This started quite tamely with playful editions of classic texts, but it has now extended to the destruction of statues, the effacement of historical truth, and the destruction of other elements of the shared social and historical fabric. This makes it impossible to construct a national story of suffering and sacrifice, as conceived by Renan. We are all too busy destroying anything share and telling our own stories to share in anything. Poor Renan never suspected that language would be used as a tool to doubt everything, probably even his own existence.
Finally, the financial organisation and technological integration of the world through mass communications and global travel has collapsed the necessary distance for different national stories to unfolded. In conditions where everything has collapsed into everything else in space, we can no longer say where we are.
These four factors have killed the civic nationalism described by Renan. Its corpse is walking. Governments hold meetings and publish reports on integration and diversity. But this is just a pantomime. The patient is dead.
We can no longer build coherent stories based on shared sacrifice. We can barely talk to each other civilly, since citizens experience each other as digital phantoms online rather than real people.
A tweet from a Pakistani Londoner last year asked, “Why do white people talk about the war all the time?”. This sums up the nature of the problem. My point is not that the girl should be chastised for writing this, as many people would unfairly suggest. She was doubtless abused for writing the tweet. But there are few good reason why she should care about this element of national sacrifice. The Second World War was not part of her story, and arguably it was conducted to maintain European domination over what became Pakistan. There is no good reason why she should care. And this is why civic nationalism is dead.
This leaves us with the nationalism of blood which Renan rejected. He was right to reject the nationalism of blood as being incoherent, but incoherence or untruthfulness is not a bar to social belief. It does not matter that Mao and Hitler were wrong in their beliefs about the world. They had the power to impose their view of the world as social reality, and that was all that mattered. The nationalism of blood is incoherent, but it is true enough for people to believe it. This is an immense danger.
In many respects our life has never been more biologically determined. Every day seems to bring news of another genetic breakthrough, a new way of understanding how human life grew. It will not take long for these ideas and scientific facts to be woven into ideologies – even as lies or distortions. The spirituality of Renan, based in language and customs, seems quaint in comparison to the potent science of genetics. Nobody really talks of spirituality now with any seriousness.
The dominant cult of scientism, a sort of pseudo-religion based on the worship of the scientific method and faith in boundless technological progress, neatly dovetails with the nationalism of blood. This could prove a very dangerous combination in coming years for the West.
The ideology of blood has powerful appeal, especially in uncertain time where economic and social stability are accelerating. This acceleration has become acute in the past 10 years with the global financial crisis, the migrant crisis, and the rise of violent Islamism.
The great danger for future European and US stability is resentment. Resentment is a potent and dangerous human emotion. Resentment helped put Hitler in power; it was the feeling among the German people that they had lost something during the Great Depression that fuelled their rage. A man who never has anything cannot be really resentful. This is why Machiavelli warned against taking away a man’s patrimony. It was better to kill his father, counselled the wily Florentine, than take away the son’s inheritance.
The ideological project of deconstruction has now spread to European history and art. The project is conceived partly as an act of atonement for European imperialism.
It is a project undertaken by European elites who believe themselves to be virtuous. They are fortunate people with capital to burn. It costs little to show complete cultural effacement. Indeed, the elites know that they will be considered virtuous by each other for doing so. They do not understand that they govern societies that have yet to really recover from the economic crisis of 2008. And they forget the sense of resentment that their actions will engender. The effacement of the European patrimony in art, science, and culture has not gone unnoticed.
And it will be regarded, as Machiavelli cautioned, with the greatest hatred. Further, the collapse of the national story – essentially abandoned in the government, bureaucracy, and educational sector – adds to a further sense of loss and resentment.
Those journalists who write about write articles describing industries as “too pale, male, and stale” and the activists who pull down statues of historic European figure remind me of the words of the poet Heinrich Heine, “Where they burn books, at the end they also burn people.”
Millions of people are thinking the same, and the Internet is quickening the poison of preemptive genocide. The elite, oblivious to the massive demographic changes in their countries, encourages this journalism and thought as an act of noblesse oblige to apologise for European imperialism. They apologise with other people’s money and lives, of course.
In this way, the elites are heaping up an enormous bonfire in the European countries. Donald Trump is the least of the world’s problems in this regard. Trump, though he has fascistic elements in his presentation, remains a civic nationalist in his ideology. He believes anyone can become an American, providing they adopt the belief system of America. He actually stands for the rule of law, insofar as he wishes to see the existing immigration law enforced. He believes in the common story of sacrifice outline by Renan, even if he states his position like an ass.
What we should fear is what may come after Trump. What would a new nationalism look like? Europe is also advancing through its long-established neo-fascist parties towards a nationalism of blood. The neo-fascists of the Front National and the FPÖ have reorganised, but their reorganisation is only a mirror of the Eurocommunist direction that saw Marxist-Leninists reconfigure their domain of struggle to the cultural realm in the 1970s and 1980s, abandoning the struggle for the state. This project has borne fruit, and the far right has now moved into the cultural zone in emulation of the far left.
Renan identified the nation as a transitory stage of development. There were tribes, monarchies, and city states before. The nation was useful for the time, but its time would eventually end. He predicted a European confederation in the future. He was proved right for a while, although only after years and years of bloodshed.
But the European confederation is now also in crisis. And it is far from certain what will replace it. There are those who speak of new tribalism, but the heterogenous challengers to the failing European confederation and fragile nation state are not really tribes. The Islamists, the alt-right, the neo-fascists, and populists are not always linked by blood, as with a tribe. The Islamists and the alt-right are purely ideological movements.
An Islamist from Rotterdam has more in common with an Islamist in Turin than he does with his fellow Dutchman. An alt-right activist in Prague has more more in common with an alt-right activist in Barstow than he does with his fellow Czech. This is a long way from the nationalism of blood, even if the men involved believe it to be a nationalism of blood.
There is a strong element of ambiguity, even in these supposedly rooted and radical political thought systems.
This has always been the case to an extent. During the Weimar period, it was not uncommon for a Communist to become a Nazi and vice versa. Members of the Red Army Faction switched from Marxism-Leninism to Islamism. So did the storied terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Members of neo-fascist movements have also defected to Islamism. There are many ways to oppose the liberal order, and people will move according to pragmatism, aesthetics, and ethical consideration.
The news that members of Germany’s populist party the AfD had converted to Islam is not remarkable in this regard. It was met with derision by the AfD’s opponents, but it made sense. The ‘defectors’ doubtless joined the AfD seeking an alternative to the liberal technocratic order. They calculated that Islam has a better chance of overthrowing the liberal order in Germany than nationalism or populism. It certainly has youth on its side. It also provides a useful camouflage for anti-Semitic views, which are sometimes tolerated by indigenous Europeans when voiced by Muslims for fear of accusations of racism.
Renan would no doubt laugh at this ease of transfer between supposedly rooted movements. That which is supposedly so fundamental is as permanent as a tweet.
But this is typical, a person may start a channel promoting veganism, drift into alt-right politics, and move on to talking about knitting. An existing trend is fostered by the online reality.
It is all very easy to do. How long does a news cycle last? An hour? Ten hours? How long does an identity last online? A week? A day? An hour?
These are strangely disembodied times, thanks to the Internet. Nobody knows where they are or where they are from. The word on everybody’s lips, ‘identity’. Sexual identity, national identity, racial identity, class identity, family identity, ethnic identity, ethical identity, and on.
Our psychological reality is sadly neglected, and it is the fragmentation of this reality that also makes Renan’s civic nationalism impossible. A report in the UK recently expressed shock that Muslim children growing up in certain areas believed that the UK was a majority Muslim country.
But the story was silly. Statistically the UK is not a Muslim country. Islam’s adherents constitute about 5% of the population. But, as the psychologist C.G. Jung pointed out, we do not live in a statistical world. We live in a psychological world. If the vast majority of people you interact with in your neighbourhood and life are Muslim, then you live psychologically in a Muslim country. This goes for almost any other identity: Christian, gay, black, Sikh, and so on.
What is written in a government statistic book is irrelevant. You can also look up the length of the country’s coast in statistical terms. What do you know of the coast? What do you know about the colour of the cliffs, the cattle grazing close to a footpath, or the screech of a seagull? Nothing. You know a fact about mileage which – while true, interesting, and possibly useful – is extremely detached from how you actually experience the coast.
Life on television or the Internet is a fiction. Indeed, with the Internet it would be possible to live in a media world that was also entirely tailored to particular worldview. How would you know that there was life beyond your self-constructed reality?
Given the areas I have lived in over the past few years, I consider the UK to be a Muslim country. That is a psychological, not a statistical, reality. This is because Islam is the religion that overwhelming dominated my day-to-day existence. Similarly, I live in a UK that is majority-minority ethnically. There is a complete mixture of races and ethnicities, with no group predominating.
This is not statistical reality. But what do numbers on a page mean?
This is the psychological reality for millions of people in the UK. It is, therefore, reality. And it has been for as long as I have been alive. But the elites, quite disconnected from this reality, often make pronouncements that seem to be speaking about the UK as it was 40 or 50 years ago.
This is very dangerous, for government policy, the media, and educational establishment continue to treat the indigenous population as if they were a super majority. Lived experience indicates that the indigenous population is simply one minority among many, although it is not extended the same protections as other minorities. The situation is not treated with alarm because people act as if the indigenous population is a super majority. The main risk from this group is that they may persecute other groups, so goes the thinking.
This situation is obviously a perfect recruiting ground for the far right.
The government acts as if the indigenous population is a super majority with special advantages, but this is not so for many millions of people. This is another acute danger in Western societies; it is laying the foundation for violent political groups. Over the past year, I have watched one alt-right YouTube channel directed to a UK audience grow from 12,000 to 50,000 followers. That is one channel, admittedly it may be attracting followers from around the globe.
During the same time period, the security services wound up a neo-Nazi terror group. The situation is, I believe, much worse than any government official admits in public. Doubtless these numbers are matched by people following violent Islamist organisations and leftist terror groups online. It is not just that we have no national story of sacrifice, we are apparently actively stirring up hate and violence against each other.
The parochialism of contemporary life was illustrated to me two years ago by this story from the Notting Hill Carnival. A white banker was watching the carnival, overwhelmingly black African and Afro-Caribbean in composition, from a pub window and said, “I’ve never seen so many black people before!”. He was drunk and out of his head on nitrous oxide. But, nonetheless, his crass – though not malicious – remark showed that he lived in a different city to me. How could anyone not be aware that London contains hundreds of thousands of members of every race, ethnicity, and religion on Earth?
The man lived in another psychological reality, which is as good as being in another reality altogether. He moved from suburb to office – doubtless an elite office and an elite suburb given his job – presumably without encountering other races, ethnicities, or religions. He was a member of the elite who could not conceive that any people experience the same city as shattered into thousands of different groups and experiences. It is people like this who are careless in their social and cultural reforms, and so risk encouraging violence and tension.
His London was a completely different London to mine or to the people at the carnival. And who knows how many other Londons exist?
This story is important because it indicates how far we live in socially segregated environments. We, hypnotised by our mobile phones and headphones, are not even aware of the streets in front of our face. We do not know our neighbours. And we have built a little digital world that is more real than the concrete outside.
It is also important because the psychological reality required for the civic nation described by Renan has vanished.
The situation is obviously dangerous for social stability. We live in a world that is so disembodied that we are not even sure what country we are living in anymore. We get on a flight from Beirut to London and step almost contagiously into a friendly cafe with hookah and cedar tree logos. We fly from Tel Aviv to London just in time for Sabbath in North London. We cluster in a pub to watch the cricket. These multiple social worlds are not bad in themselves. They comprise part of the charm of living in the megacity, but we are becoming not only strangers to others but also strangers to ourselves in our new environment.
My preference would be for the city state to reemerge as the central means for human organisation. The megapolis is unsatisfactory in this regard. The city state, about the size of my native city Oxford (population approximately 150,000), provides a situation where government can take place close to the people.
It also gives the opportunity for citizens to actually meet and know each other in their everyday activities. Oxford is a city where it is possible to bump into people again and again. This common shared space, which is – unlike Internet politics – fully embodied is what is required to build a civic spirit and common sense of reality.
It is also the ideal environment to trade, learn, and dispute. We can know each other face-to-face rather than WRITING IN CAPS LOCKS on Twitter to make a point, or misunderstanding a sincere question online for a passive aggressive attack.
There are enough people to avoid village or small town parochialism, and also enough to undertake interesting and original enterprises. We may have a sense of being together – different religions, races, and ethnicities – while also having space to withdraw to renew our unique identities.
We have created urban environments that are too large to be convivial for the individual. The rise of so-called urban explorer may seem frivolous or silly, but it represents a genuine feeling of bewilderment in the city. The urban explorers break into disused factories and investigate cabling lines that run beneath the cities. This sounds a little ridiculous, but their investigations serve to show us how far we our disconnected from the infrastructure and urban environment that sustains us.
What really lurks beneath our footsteps on the city streets? We have no idea, possibly less idea than what we found out about Antarctica on a documentary last night.
Humans have explored so much in the natural environment that we have turned back to exploring our own urban creations, which have become as incomprehensible to the individual human as an unexplored desert or Arctic waste.
My city state preference, like so many political dreams, is impractical in a situation of population explosion and mass technological organisation.
We cannot simply cancel New York, London, Beijing, Tokyo, Lagos, or any of the other megacities. And my native Oxford is not a city in itself anymore. It is really a suburb of London.
Oxford airport actually includes the title ‘London’ in its name. This was mocked at the time it was instituted. But commutes to the centre of the megacity are probably not much longer from Oxford than from the classic big three of London: Stansted, Gatwick, or Heathrow.
We are an expensive suburb of London.
Besides, we cannot simply remove people from the Internet. How much trauma would occur, excluding organisational chaos, if the Internet stopped working?
We would be a little happier in the long term, but in the short time I am sure there would be a few suicides and many tears. Don’t worry. I don’t think anybody is pulling the ‘off’ switch on the Internet anytime soon, though if I happen to find it…
The path is set: we are beyond civic nationalism, the city state, and confederation.
Unfortunately, we still have enough blood-tinged nationalism, false religion, and secular ideology to carry us into violent conflict. We will have maximum proximity to difference combined with minimum identity. Our future seems to lie somewhere between nihilistic consumerism bereft of identity, and the most fanatical blood nationalism and religious loyalties.
The elite, meanwhile, retreat behind their private security guards and large walls.