Nationalism: Good or Evil?
Nationalism has become a difficult concept in the Western World. Much like sex in the 19th century, it is seen as a base urge, and not something to be portrayed openly by any self respecting individual. Our conception of nationalism has been profoundly influenced by events in the north. A nationalist, to us, is a drunken lout in a Celtic jersey singing bigoted songs in the back of a pub, or a masked terrorist in the process of, or at least planning to, blow something up.
In light of the rabid nationalism in the north (both green and orange) anti-nationalism has become all the rage in the south. Column after column in our national newspapers deride and pour scorn on Irish nationalism. Revisionists trawl through our history books intent on undermining every belief that our national identity is based on. In many cases, this anti-nationalism can be as ridiculous and fanatical as it’s opponent. For example, Ian O’Doherty’s diatribe against four old men who happen to be pretty decent musicians. (about 3.30 mins in)
So what about the rest of us? Those who are happy Collins et al. Fought and created an independent Ireland, but are not interested in flag waving or learning Gaelic, a language we feel is as useful to us as Esperanto. Can we legitimately call ourselves nationalists?
Well it depends, of course, on what type of nationalism you are referring to. There are many explanations for the rise of nationalism. Some argue that, with the rise of Capitalism, people interacted together at a far greater rate than ever before. People in the agricultural societies of the past generally only dealt with people in their own village and immediate locality. This increased association helped foster the modern idea of a nation comprising of a great number of people spread over a great geographical area.
It is also argued that nationalism was fostered by political leaders. Napoleon realised that patriotism gave him access to a greater number of soldiers than ever before, people who were willing to lay down their lives for the nation of France. Whatever the reasons, there is no doubt that nationalism exists, and that the great majority of people ‘feel’ it to some extent. Nationalism, however, is not homogeneous, and the modern nationalists in Sinn Fein and the DUP only represent one aspect of it.
There have long been two accepted forms of nationalism: Cultural/ethnic nationalism and Civic nationalism. David Brown defines them as follows. Cultural nationalism refers to, ‘a sense of community which focuses on beliefs in myths of common ancestry; and on the perception that these myths are validated by contemporary similarities of Physiognomy, language or religion. The similarities with the nationalisms of Northern Ireland are obvious. For Brown Civic nationalism is a sense where, ‘‘all citizens, irrespective of their diverse ancestry, comprise a community with a common destiny’. This is the type of nationalism, I and most people would subscribe to.
What relevance does this have to libertarian thought? Michel Foucault argues that the 18th century heralded a change in the very nature of power. Foucault’s argument is very complex, but basically he argues that the state became like a father at the head of a family. Like the father, the state controls almost every aspect of it’s citizen’s lives. It is required to provide for every need of the people, as well as controlling what the people are allowed to do. This whole argument is based, as you can see, on the idea that a state is a family, that we are connected by a universal bloodline or culture.
One of ethnic nationalism’s first proponents was Johann Gottfried Herder. He argued that a nation was a broad family. Everybody was born into a Volk, a large community of people who were connected by a bloodline, culture and language. This Volk was to be the base of the nation. The symbiotic relationship between this cultural nationalism and the modern form of ‘cradle to grave’ government is strong.
Enlightenment thought can be seen as counter to this later Romantic thought of ethnic nationalism. Rousseau in his seminal book ‘Discourse on Political Economy’, strongly argued against basing the idea of the nation on the family. His contemporaries, such as Montesquieu were in agreement. The state was seen as resting on the voluntary consent of the people. They were united in their belief in freedom from tyranny, not by any cultural or ethnic similarities.
Cultural/ethnic nationalism and authoritarian governance have been synonymous throughout history. It is only Civic nationalists like the American founding fathers and our own Wolfe Tone, who were the true advancers of freedom. They had no interest in the ethnic and cultural ideas which dominate modern nationalist discourse.