The ruptures provoked by globalisation has prompted a nationalist revival in the early 21st Century.
Miquel Vila is an activist in the Catalan pro-independence movement, and a political scientist specialised in International Relations
In 2019, national flags were seen on the barricades of major social revolts against authoritarian and neoliberal governments throughout the world, in nations such as Catalonia and Chile, as well as the territory of Hong Kong. The national question has become the most common expression of social conflicts around the world. COVID-19 is not going to change that.
A double movement explains this situation. First, the tensions have risen in a growing post-globalisation context, between transnational hegemonic capital and national capital. Second, the even more acute contradiction between national lower class and transnational capital, has become central within national social conflicts. The much less mobile national working classes have been the ones carrying the burden of globalisation. A defence through national sovereignty has proven to be their only remaining shield.
From the quest for self-determination to populist revolts, the national question is going to remain central to 21st century politics. The acknowledgement of national sovereignty as an emancipatory force and the defence of self-determination as the foundation of the international system should be the foundations of any alternative to technocratic neoliberalism. Nevertheless, the left in many contexts is still attached to a futile opposition to nationalism.
Nationalism is an ideology based upon the agreement that humans are organised into nations: a social group with a shared culture, history, and political horizons. Nations have the right to decide their affairs without external interference, that is known as self-determination. National identity – like any other identity – distinguishes those who are members of the nation from those who are not, thus creating solidarity among national members. This sense of common belonging reinforces class unity while opening the window for solidarity across social classes.
Nationalism works because of the fact that humans are social beings and there is no single universal reality. Real political action is prepared within a national framework, targeting a specific national public. Post-national international solidarity has never really existed; it has always come from the previous acknowledgment (active or passive) of different communities. Opposing nationalism in general is thus a sterile exercise. As Michel Billing shows in his work Banal Nationalism: We are all nationalists.
The virtues of nationalism.
Nationalism is a pillar of modern politics and a democratising force. The erruption of popular masses into political life was the realisation that they had a shared nationality. It was the concept that all members of a national community are equal that helped the expansion of, among others, of universal suffrage, civil rights, or welfare state.
Nationalism is not the sole builder of modernity, it works in tandem with political movements. Yet, without the framework that the nation gives, any universalist ideology could not have had any practical implementation in the real world. Indeed, there has never been a successful social revolution (maybe with the exception of the Bolshevik revolution) that hasn’t been framed within a national perspective.
Modern politics is mostly about the constant dispute of different concepts of the nation. Despite common criticism, exclusionary practices are not limited to nationalism. Their existence within a nationalist movement does not necessarily have its origin in its nationalist character. Neoliberalism, as cosmopolitan as it is, is exclusionary and brutal in matters of class alignment. So, the opposition to such expressions within nationalism, should not be understood as a position against nationalism, but against a particular discriminatory programme.
Self-determination and the international system.
International relations have been democratised thanks to nationalism and self-determination. The fact that the UN today has 193 states and not the initial 50 nations is due to the spread of a plethora of national liberation movements around the colonized world. Benedict Anderson pointed out that nationalism is one of the greatest contributions of the West to colonized peoples. The evidence is how the victims of colonization have embraced the ideas of sovereignty and self-determination.
Imperialist campaigns have used nationalism to obtain domestic support, but cosmopolitanism is the true ideological source of ever-expanding empires. Within the ranks of the left against imperialism, the respect for self-determination is an essential condition. Nothing good has ever come imposed by an external power.
Nationalism has challenged the voracious appetites of imperialist elites. Within a country, it is nationalism that eventually results in populations tiring of never-ending military campaigns in foreign lands. On occupied territories, nationalist resistance against foreign occupation is one of the factors that has made territorial conquest too costly nowadays. Nationalism is the force that has defeated the almighty US army in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. In post-COVID19 world’s intensification of a new power grab, nationalism will prove again to be the shield for middle and small nations to defend their freedom.
Rebuilding nations, rebuilding democracy.
As the industrial revolution introduced the antagonism of social class to modern politics, the latest stage of neoliberal globalisation has created a conflict between pro-sovereignty nationalism and post-national cosmopolitanism. The national question is no longer reduced to people struggling to attain sovereignty, but has become common in almost all political contexts.
Liberal cosmopolitanism has been the ideological tool of neoliberal elites. The cosmopolitan ethos presents an individual detached from any particular community or territory who is able to move unencumbered with capital and unimpeded trade. Despite the adoption of the banal cosmopolitanism by some leftists, popular masses around the world haven’t acquiesced to such delusions.
In (post)modern atomized societies, marked by social fragmentation, the nation becomes the framework to infuse broad social solidarity. Within the framework of the nation a realistic universalism can be implemented to integrate diversity. The multicultural approach has proven to be a failure to manage the complexities of our contemporary societies. The wave of left-wing nationalist governments in Latin America during the early 2000s and most recently youth social revolts of 2019 are examples of those dynamics. The defence of democracy against technocratic elites and the struggle against neoliberalism has arisen from the national grassroots. There is no democracy outside the sovereign nation.
Nationalism as national class struggle.
In neo-colonial and state-less nations, the popular sectors take the vanguard of the national struggle. In the contexts of Britain or France, strong national capital, has been able to articulate nationalist movements lead by themselves. But even in those situations, defending sovereignty is the only way of confronting reactionary approaches. Leftists have been defeated in all the battles in which the left has permitted the right to rally alone round the national flag. The case of Brexit is the most dramatic example of the futility of a left that not only is unable to understand the question of sovereignty but is opposed to it. Post-COVID19 corporativism makes the case for a people’s nationalism opposed to corporate technocracies even stronger.
Nationalism is here to stay. Despite leftist mistrust, the working class around the world have been participating in mass movements in favour of recovering sovereignty from globalisation, international markets, technocrats, and corrupt national elites. When confronted with the current situation in Hong Kong or Catalonia, in France or the US, the left should be able to integrate nationhood into their own politics and make the case for an emancipatory nationalism and self-determination opposed to exclusionary politics and neo-imperialist adventures.