What is the difference between “belonging” to a nation and joining a bank? Almost all individuals find themselves relying upon these institutions to protect their own interests. You put your money in a bank in order to “save” it, and to perhaps earn a particle of interest on the side. The nation state protects your life and property, and it may extend supplementary benefits such as healthcare and education. On the face of it, both of these institutions appear to be entirely contractual, but you do not “belong” to a bank in the same way that you do to a nation. You do not celebrate the history of your bank or sing stirring songs about your bank or volunteer to die for it during stock market emergencies. Not unless, that is, you are extremely odd indeed.
One difference is that whilst parents may put their children’s savings into a bank on their behalf, the individual is born into their nation. They will enter national life by learning the language of their nation. When first reading national newspapers and listening to the national news, they begin to witness the life of their nation, as it, in the words of the anthropologist Benedict Anderson, “moves calendrically through homogenous, empty time.” It is, of course, impossible for the nation to exist outside of the national literature which “imagines” it and connects all of its readers as a community. Nationalism is, henceforth, something that you unconsciously pick up and fall into doing, in the same way that certain people may have followed the same soap opera since they were a child.
An even more crucial difference is that you are consigned to a nation. For many people, it is simply impossible to leave. When a British visitor tours a poor country such as Hungary, almost everybody whom they meet will declare, at least privately, how much they would like to leave Hungary for a better life in Britain. But they are cattle and Hungary is their designated enclosure. If your bank offers you a disappointing rate of interest, you can always put your money in a better bank. The ambition of any socialist should be to make freedom of movement as uncomplicated as changing your bank.
Even with borders now thrown open across most of the European Union, one of the most vicious and insidious characteristics of wealthy states such as Britain is their intolerance of immigration. Every obstacle is placed in the way of the immigrant, and not merely modern society’s inability to provide universal employment. The immigrant is often viewed as a sort of vermin that mindlessly consumes resources and services, rather than as a human being who produces value through their labour. On these grounds – an irrational fear of economic growth – the nation is proved to be indispensable.
That nationalism remains one of the most popular and widely held ideologies – so accepted that it is now rarely perceived as an ideology – represents a yawning hole in the rational basis of our society. How can an ideology so overwhelmingly banal – which offers only the emptiest sense of belonging and identity – entertain any realistic hope of survival in the age of, say, the internet? The more that we learn about each other, the more that we confirm what was apparent from the very beginning: that every nation is identical; that every national anthem is equally dreary; that every national cuisine is equally authentic; that every national capital has a museum and some sort of freedom square; that every national history features the emergence of a middle class; and that every nation performs equally poorly in the Olympics. Every nation is equally unremarkable, equally undistinguished. To take pride in belonging to a particular nation is like taking pride in having feet or hair.
When history comes to be written, nationalism always gets off extraordinarily lightly. British undergraduates are today taught that the present era of postmodernism is informed by a rejection of “totalitarian” ideologies such as Nazism and Stalinism, which together wreaked an unprecedented human destruction. Nationalism, however, is never numbered amongst the ranks of the bloodily discredited, even though crimes of a uniquely monstrous stupidity have been committed in its name. It is hard to think of anything stupider in the whole of human history than the partition of India – when a nation was literally invented at the drop of a hat, on already compromised lines of religious faith, with a wholesale breakdown of civic society, and millions killed or displaced in the subsequent panic.
Pakistan turned out to be not worth the death of an ant, and yet I have never heard anybody from Pakistan concede that their country should quietly return home, an especially humbled Prodigal son, to be reincorporated into its far more prosperous family of origin. Millions of people therefore remain trapped in the ongoing folly of their nation.
In this instance, nationalism proved poisonous, but in moderate doses it is hardly the opium of the masses. It is often more akin to caffeine – that dreary, flavourless Starbucks that you drink first thing in the morning just to give you a rudimentary sense of being there. Yet despite remaining in many respects the most torturous nonsense, nationalism is still the one fortress that the Left refuses to abandon. Karl Marx was originally dismissive of national struggles, but he eventually conceded that the proletariat had to be purged of its frequent bigotry towards oppressed nations in order to be successfully unified. On these pragmatic grounds, Marx supported Irish independence and Marxism increasingly equated national struggles with anti-imperialism. Socialism, anarchism and Christianity may present impeccably anti-imperialist credentials, but it is supposed that these ideologies always have to take a national form, rather as different plays may be required to unfold on the same stage.
In the twenty-first century we find almost all of the contemporary Left demanding that national governments regulate multinational corporations and defend hapless local people from the forces of globalisation. It is perfectly reasonable, indeed a moral imperative, to demand that a government invests in upcoming technologies and better universities in order to secure greater economic growth. But this is a description of contractual democracy, not nationalism. We may demand this investment from the government of a city such as Edinburgh. Or a completely new political structure which is not based upon an arbitrary geographical or linguistic bloc.
The trouble here is simply the sheer, blind persistence of nationalism. English and Spanish are now increasingly identifiable as regional lingua francas. Nobody now subsists exclusively on books and films which have been produced in their own country. Being British does not give one some magically intrinsic connection to Shakespeare, as if it was the “culture” of the British, since there is nothing to prevent a Mongolian theatre troupe from staging a better version of King Lear than one from Stratford. Cities such as Edinburgh are now inexorably cosmopolitan and fuelled by immigrant labour, despite all of the petty connivances of a government which clothes itself in the fantasy that it is protecting our society by policing its borders. From what obscure fund of irrationality, therefore, do many people still find the effort to declaim that, “I am British,” when such a quality has only the most tenuous connection to their destiny?
The nationalist buries themselves in an entirely unnecessary and disposable layer of identity. We may still rely upon the nation, just as we do upon our banks, but this relationship must be pragmatic and purely contractual. It must be otherwise possible to relieve or cure somebody of their surplus nationalism.
Karl Marx once accused religion of being “the opium of the people.” Fashionable “new” atheists such as Richard Dawkins furiously attack whatever is left of organised religion, even if a humanist critique of Christianity essentially comes down to shooting fish in a barrel. Yet they remain blind or indifferent to the far more socially retarding power of nationalism, an ideology which holds back the whole of humanity on no other basis than force of habit. A true sceptic such as David Hume may have found that nationalism is now just as effeminising as religion had once been, in upholding authority and enfeebling the people. Marx seemed to conclude, however, that religion would simply decline once people had “given up a condition which requires illusions.” The Good Society may be a world away, but national belonging is now not even worthy as an illusion.
[Tychy previously reviewed Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. This essay anticipates the forthcoming debates about Scottish Independence, which Tychy intends to cover in great detail. Ed.]